What does it mean to “Operate” a vehicle under Texas’ DWI laws?
The simple answer is that it means whatever the jury (not the judge) says it means.
Under Section 49.04(a) of the Texas Penal Code, a person commits the offense of DWI when the person “is intoxicated while operating a motor vehicle in a public place.” Emphasis added. The Penal Code, however, does not define the term “operating.” When words are left undefined by statute, the Texas Government Code Section 311.011 tells us that those words are to be “construed according to the rules of grammar and common usage,” unless the word or phrase has some “technical or particular meaning,” in which case, the word or phrase “shall be construed accordingly.” What about the word “operating?” Is it common or technical?
In the trial of Kirsch v. State out in the Longview area, the defendant was charged with DWI after the police found him drunk while standing over his motorcycle trying to kick-start it on a public road. As you might guess, there was a dispute over whether he was “operating” his vehicle while intoxicated. Over defense objection, the trial court included the prosecutor’s requested definition of “operate” in the jury instructions:
to exert personal effort to cause the vehicle to function.
To the prosecutor’s credit, the definition was taken from an appellate case (although not one dealing with jury instructions). Now, under this definition it is pretty clear that by trying to kick-start the motorcycle, the defendant was indeed operating a motor vehicle. But if the term “operate” had been left undefined for the jury, then the defense could have certainly argued under the rules of grammar and common usage that the defendant was not “operating” his vehicle, because it was not running (or whatever other arguments an able defense counsel might make). Armed with a black and white definition of “operate,” the jury convicted the defendant of DWI.
The 6th District Court of Appeals (Texarkana) affirmed the conviction.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed. For a unanimous court, Judge Alcala wrote:
Our cases have consistently held that “operate” is a common term that has not acquired a technical meaning and may be interpreted according to its common usage… Although an appellate court may articulate a definition of a statutorily undefined, common term in assessing the sufficiency of the evidence on appellate review, a trial court’s inclusion of that definition in a jury charge may constitute an improper comment on the weight of the evidence.
The opinion goes on to note that by instructing the jurors on the definition of the term “operate,” the trial court “impermissibly guided their understanding of the term.” “The jury should have been free,” the CCA held, “to assign that term ‘any meaning which is acceptable in common parlance.’” The CCA reversed the case and remanded it back to the COA for a harm analysis.
There you have it. The meaning of the term “operating” in the Texas DWI statute means…whatever the jury thinks it means.
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