St. Mary's Law Journal


Brian L. Owsley


Each year numerous defendants appear in courts located in Texas, both state and federal, charged with offenses related to driving while intoxicated (DWI). Defendants appearing before state courts are prosecuted pursuant to Texas statutes, regulations, and binding case law. In certain circumstances, defendants appearing in federal courts face the same statutory elements of a crime and the same potential penalties as in a Texas state court. In many of the cases, however, statutory elements and potential penalties differ. Furthermore, certain rights and regulations afforded to Texas state defendants are unavailable to those charged in federal courts located in the state. The location where drivers are arrested for DWI violations determines whether drivers appear in state or federal court. While there are several statutes criminalizing acts on federal land, Congress has made no attempt to enact specific statutory violations for each crime. Instead, Congress enacted the Assimilative Crimes Act (ACA) to incorporate state criminal statutes. Despite conforming to state law, federal DWI cases involve key differences. These include: no guaranteed right to a jury trial for petty offenses, petty offenses are tried before federal magistrate judges, charges are governed by federal procedural and substantive law, and federal courts may not suspend state-issued driver’s licenses. The prosecution of a charge of DWI or conviction is very similar in a federal court and in Texas state courts. Yet, the slight differences in pursuing these criminal actions in their respective courts can have significant consequences. These include the different sentences defendants face or the rules and laws which apply to a given case. Having a firm grasp on these differences is essential to a party’s success in the criminal matter.


St. Mary's University School of Law