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The Lone Star State has a serious alcohol-related problem. In 2020, it had the third-highest drunk driving rate and the greatest number of DWI offenders under 21 involved in fatal crashes nationwide. Unfortunately, the statistics the following year did not show a decline in cases — impaired drivers were to blame for 1,906 out of the 4,498 traffic deaths, reflecting a 24% increase from the year prior.

In line with these numbers, the Texas Department of Transportation has initiated several campaigns to promote traffic safety. Through “Faces of Drunk Driving,” victims are given a platform to share their stories and call attention to the importance of driving sober. There is also a statewide effort called “Drive Sober. No Regrets.” especially aimed at student drivers.

In addition to projects and campaigns, several laws that govern impaired driving are in place in Texas. Many of these will be explored in this article, together with the penalties, damage caps, and statutes of limitations for civil and criminal DWI lawsuits.

General DWI Laws in Texas

The official term for DUI in Texas is DWI, or driving while intoxicated. But these terms can be used interchangeably. An individual is considered intoxicated if their BAC is 0.08% or greater. Meanwhile, for commercial drivers, there is a 0.04% BAC limit. 

Texas also follows a zero tolerance policy for drivers under the legal drinking age of 21 years old, which means there must absolutely be no traces of alcohol in their bloodstream if they are operating a vehicle.

Nevertheless, there are instances wherein an individual may be deemed intoxicated even if their BAC results do not reach the maximum threshold. Signs of impaired physical or mental abilities and failure on field sobriety tests can be enough proof for a traffic officer to conclude that a driver is intoxicated and unfit to drive.

It is worth keeping in mind that sobriety checkpoints are illegal in Texas. Moreover, DWI stops should only be made under circumstances that place a driver under reasonable suspicion, such as:

  • Running a red light.

  • Driving against traffic or failing to maintain lane.

  • Speeding or braking frequently.

  • Narrowly escaping an accident.

If a law enforcement officer fails to provide probable cause for a DWI stop, then any evidence they may obtain to support a conviction against the driver cannot be used in court.

Prescription Drugs DWI in Texas

It is possible to get a DWI charge in Texas for any substance that impairs an individual’s driving capacity, including prescription drugs. Antidepressants, pain relievers, allergy medication, antihypertensive, and muscle relaxants are just a few of the common medicines that can affect one’s ability to operate a vehicle safely.

Texas Implied Consent Laws

Texas has its own implied consent laws, which means that drivers stopped for reasonable suspicion of violating DWI laws must automatically consent to a breath or blood test.

Refusal to submit to a chemical test will result in a license suspension for at least 180 days. If a driver refuses a chemical test again in another instance within a decade, their license will be suspended for two years.

Do note that the implied consent statute does not apply to pre-arrest procedures, which are typically known as field sobriety tests.

Open Container Laws in Texas

Texas law prohibits having an open container of alcoholic beverages within a vehicle’s passenger area, or the space designated for the driver’s and passengers’ seats. This area does not include the trunk, glove compartment, or any locked storage within a vehicle.

The law applies even if a vehicle is just parked in a public space. But a person is not subject to an arrest if their only citation involves a violation of this law.

Exceptions to the open container law apply to taxis, buses, limousines, and the living quarters of RVs.

Bentley’s Law

Bentley’s Law requires DWI offenders to make child support payments if their impaired driving causes an accident that results in a parent’s death. Texas, along with Tennessee, Kentucky, and Maine, is among the first four states to sign it into law.

The convicted driver must provide financial support until the child graduates from high school or turns 18, whichever is later. The court will determine how much they must give.

If they are unable to make payments due to their imprisonment, then they must begin paying no later than a year after they have been released. Additionally, the amount decided by the court must be paid, even if the child turns 18 or graduates while the offender is serving their prison sentence.

Deferred Adjudication

There is a legislative update for first-time DWI offenders who want to plead for deferred adjudication. They may be given the option to enter a guilty or no-contest plea in exchange for the court postponing the judgment while they are instead placed under a probationary period. 

Those who receive a deferred adjudication are required to install an ignition interlock device on their vehicle. The terms of the deal may also require them to carry out community service or attend educational programs related to alcohol-related offenses. Upon completing the probationary period, their charge will be dismissed with a not guilty verdict.

Dram Shop Laws in Texas

The specifics of the Lone Star State’s dram shop laws can be found in the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code. It states that establishments that serve alcohol — such as bars and restaurants — may be liable for the consequences of serving alcohol to a person under 21 or someone who is already intoxicated. 

Meanwhile, the law specifies that social hosts can only be held liable for a DWI incident if they have provided alcohol to a minor who is not their own child.

Victims of a DWI incident or their immediate family members can pursue a dram shop lawsuit against the establishment that overserved the drunk driver. Texas also allows first-party dram shop lawsuits, which means the drunk driver can also file a case against the establishment that served them alcohol.

Safe Harbor Act

If a dram shop lawsuit materializes, the Texas Safe Harbor Act provides a degree of protection to an alcohol-serving establishment as long as it can prove that it complies with the following:

  • Attendance in commission-approved seller training programs is mandatory for its staff.

  • The employee involved in the incident attended such training programs.

  • The employer has not actively encouraged any of the parties involved to break the law.

What Are the Penalties for a DWI in Texas?

The table below summarizes the standard penalties for DWI offenders:



Jail Time

License Suspension

First Offense

Class B Misdemeanor

Up to $2,000

3 to 180 days

Up to two years 

Second Offense

Class A Misdemeanor

Up to $4,000

1 month up to 1 year

Up to two years

Third and Subsequent Offenses

Third-Degree Felony


2 to 10 years

Up to two years 

Offenders are also required to pay an annual fee of up to $2,000 to keep their license. Moreover, they will be mandated to attend a DWI intervention or education program, with the possibility of having an ignition interlock device installed in their vehicle.

Minors should also keep in mind that they can be charged as adults for alcohol- and drug-related offenses. But as long as there are no aggravating factors in their DWI charge, they generally face lighter penalties, as summarized below:



Additional Consequences

First Offense (if violator is under 17)

Class C Misdemeanor

Up to $500

60-day license suspension; 20 to 40 hours of community service

Second Offense (if violator is under 17)

Class C  Misdemeanor

Up to $500

License suspension from 180 days up to two years; 40 to 60 hours of community service

Third Offense (if violator is under 17)

Delinquent Conduct by a Minor

Up to $500

License suspension from 180 days up to two years; 40 to 60 hours of community service

First Offense (if violator is 17 to 20 years old)

Class B  Misdemeanor

Up to $2,000

One year license suspension; Jail time ranging from 72 hours up to 180 days

Additionally, even for first-offense DWIs, special penalties may apply under the following circumstances:



DWI with a passenger under 15 in the vehicle

Up to $10,000 in fines;

180 days to 2 years in prison;

state jail felony on record

DWI resulting in serious injuries

Up to $10,000 in fines;

2 to 10 years of imprisonment;

third-degree felony on record

Manslaughter by intoxication

Up to $10,000 in fines;

2 to 20 years of imprisonment;

second-degree felony on record

It should also be noted that, on top of the aforementioned penalties, a DWI offender in Texas may also face a civil lawsuit if they have injured anyone while committing DWI. This means they may also have to pay for the damages incurred by the victims of their actions.

Look-Back Period

Another lasting consequence of a DWI in Texas is that, unlike other jurisdictions, the Lone Star State does not have a limit on its look-back period. The look-back period refers to how long a drunk driving conviction stays on a driver’s record. This timeframe determines whether prior offenses should be taken into account, and the lack of limitation in the Lone Star State’s look-back period means that all previous convictions are considered in an active DWI case.

This also means that in Texas, a DWI conviction stays on the offender’s record permanently. Expungement will only work if the DWI case has been dismissed without a conviction. Nevertheless, those convicted can petition an order of nondisclosure, which can be harder to achieve and comes with fewer benefits compared to an expungement.

How Much Can Someone Sue for a Drunk Driving Injury in Texas?

Victims of DWI in Texas can recover three types of damages in a personal injury lawsuit: economic, non-economic, and punitive.

Economic and non-economic damages are known as compensatory damages. In Texas DWI cases, there is no limit on the amount of compensatory damages a victim may seek.

Medical costs, lost wages and capacity to earn, and property damage fall under economic damages. Meanwhile, non-economic damages are more subjective. Some examples are pain and suffering, general inconvenience, and the loss of companionship. Calculating non-economic damages is more complex and depends on the specifics of each case. 

Punitive damages, also known as exemplary damages, are awarded in cases where there is evidence that the victim’s incurred damages are a result of the defendant’s gross negligence.

Texas places a limit on punitive damages for DWI cases, which is twice the economic damages up to $750,000 or the amount of non-economic damages up to $200,000, whichever is greater.

Plaintiffs must keep in mind that they may receive lower compensation if the defendant in their case is a government employee or someone working for an emergency service agency. In such instances, the cap for each victim is $250,000, or $500,000 divided among all the plaintiffs in a single DWI accident case.

Comparative Fault System

Texas follows a comparative fault system in determining the liability of a drunk driver in a civil DWI case. This means if the victim has been proven to be partially responsible for the accident, the amount of compensation they will receive will be reduced according to their degree of fault.

For example, if the plaintiff was breaking a traffic law when they were hit by the drunk driver, they would be considered partly to blame because their own actions may have made their injuries worse. Demanding $50,000 in damages and the court determining their fault to be 20% means their compensation will be reduced according to the same percentage. This translates to a final award amounting to $40,000.

The Statute of Limitations in Texas

The statute of limitations for filing a criminal case against a DWI offender in Texas depends on whether the offense is considered a misdemeanor or a felony. The district attorney has two years to file a charge for a misdemeanor DWI and three years for a felony DWI.

An offender may also face a civil case if they injure a third party while committing DWI. Plaintiffs have two years to file a lawsuit against the drunk driver in order to recover compensation for personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death.

For both criminal and civil DWI cases, the countdown begins on the date when the DWI offense has been committed.

However, exceptions may apply under the following circumstances:

  • The offender is on the run: The statute of limitations will be on pause until the offender is apprehended.

  • The offender is part of the military: The countdown will only start once the offender is discharged from active duty.

  • The victim is a minor: This is only applicable for civil cases, and the countdown begins as soon as the victim turns 18.

  • The investigation is taking too long: There are cases wherein the statute of limitations may be extended to give law enforcement more time to collect evidence.

Resources for DWI Defendants and Folks Injured by an Impaired Driver in Texas

Mothers Against Drunk Driving

MADD offers victim assistance programs to individuals who have been negatively impacted by a DWI accident. The nonprofit arranges support groups, refers survivors and victims to relevant organizations, and provides useful insights about the civil and criminal justice systems that govern DWI lawsuits. Texans can reach out to MADD by dialing 1-877-623-3435 or sending an email to

Crime Victims’ Compensation Program

The Office of the Attorney General facilitates the Crime Victims' Compensation Program. The total compensation eligible individuals may obtain from it is capped at $50,000. Expenses that may be compensated include medical bills, funeral costs, and loss of income as a result of a crime. Victims can get in touch with CVC staff by filling out the form on its website or dialing 800-983-9933. Residents of Austin may also call 512-936-1200.

Dallas Bar Association LegalLine

The LegalLine Clinic, sponsored by the Dallas Bar Association, is operated by volunteer attorneys who address legal inquiries for free. It runs from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. every Wednesday, and the organization also offers immediate assistance via 888-529-5277. Texans must complete the form on its website to reserve a slot.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice

TDCJ has a Victim Services Division that helps DWI victims gain a better understanding of the state’s justice system. It provides direct service to victims and their families and connects them to relevant resources and service providers. Texans can reach out to the agency by dialing 1-800-848-4284 or sending an email to The division is available from Mondays to Fridays, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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