Driverless While Intoxicated: The Future of DWI
Jake Dunn proudly exited the heavy iron doors of the swanky upscale restaurant. His jaw aching from the photographs. His hand raw from the autographs. Earlier that day he had inked a multi-million dollar contract, making him one of the highest-paid athletes in the world. Sliding his hand deep into the left pant pocket, he felt the keys his agent had delivered just hours ago. With a click, his six-figure fully-autonomous car was on its way.
In near silence, the car’s electric engine turned on. Snow white LED headlights illuminated the black pavement as the nineteen-inch wheels slowly rotated toward the car’s owner. The future of the auto industry willing and able to transport the future of the sport.
The driverless car approached the curb’s edge, and the Lamborghini doors swung open. The entourage piled in with their “lottery ticket” taking his place in the roomy back seat. The plan was to finish the celebration at an old city park. A place the longtime friends had spent hours on as kids dreaming of this very moment.
Office Kyle White’s car sat next to an empty park. It was 1:45 am Friday, and the adjacent street was about to dump fresh bait. The location was perfect. One bar after another lined the historic district. A known hot-spot for “thousand-aires” to boast about their latest deal, while emptying their wallets on cheap booze. Alcohol meant DWIs and the veteran officer was a paid assassin. Part of the DWI task force division trained and expected to make DWI arrests.
Gliding toward the park the driverless car switched lanes and changed speeds with ease. Champagne was poured without a drop hitting the suede interior. There was not a smoother ride on the road. Approaching the legendary playground, the vehicle’s automated system warned the passengers the park was closed. The advisory was unnecessary. The invincible crew knew the park’s hours and had always ignored them. Unassisted the car drifted into its selected parking spot. The doors opened and the entourage piled out. Before his size seventeens could touch the pavement, the star athlete heard the sound of squealing tires. Directly behind, red and blue lights flashed. A loud, authoritative voice came over the hip-hop music from the Bang & Olufsen speakers, “DO NOT MOVE!”
The officer was aware of autonomous cars. He vaguely recalled a three-hour course his department held on them not long ago. He couldn’t remember if he attended or not. He didn’t care. He never expected to come into contact with a self-driving car. The car’s ridiculous price tag meant one had a better chance of passing his field sobriety tests.
He wiggled his broad shoulders out from the driver side seat and exited the car. His walk exemplified confidence as he approached the “defendants.” The odor of alcohol dancing in his head. He didn’t know what type of car he stopped. It didn’t matter. From the looks of it, the driver had money, and he preferred wealthy defendants. Money meant jury trials. Jury trials meant time and a half.
“Whose vehicle is this?”
Jake mumbled, “It is mine, sir.”
“You been doing a little drinking tonight?”
The athlete’s stomach sank. But I wasn’t even driving?
At 5:30 am, sitting in his home office, Clyde Hatcher could hear one of his two cell phones buzzing. A prominent criminal defense attorney in town, he knew the meaning of an early morning phone call. He had a long list of high-profile clients and Alex Wright, the slick agent on the other line, was one of his best referral sources.
Before he put the phone to his ear, the defense attorney heard a frantic voice on the other line, “Our man got arrested for DWI.”
Clyde turned to the computer he had planned to replace for weeks. He slowly pulled up Texas Penal Code Section 49.04(a).
“A person commits an offense [DWI] if the person is intoxicated while operating a motor vehicle in a public place.”
He scrolled further and Denton v. State appeared.
“A person operates a vehicle when the totality of circumstances demonstrate the person took action to affect the functioning of the vehicle that would enable the vehicle’s use.” 911 S.W.2d 388, 390 (Tex. Crim. App. 1995).
The law was clear in Texas; you could be arrested for DWI without the car ever moving.
There wasn’t much order to the court. The mad judge counting down the days to retirement had a tendency to show up well after docket-call. Criminal defense attorneys and prosecutors shuffled from one side to the other of the dated courtroom leaving stacks of files scattered in their wake. For months, Clyde believed the law was on his side. Texas DWI statutes had yet to catch up with technology and the state was unable to prove the element of “operating.” On top of that, there were multiple people in the car, how could the prosecution prove his client was the one “operating?”
Clyde had pushed hard for a dismissal, but the young assistant district attorneys disagreed and refused to budge.
An old-school criminal lawyer, Clyde knew the district attorneys had no choice. Political contributions and pressure ensured DWIs were treated differently. DWIs were a cash cow and this highly-publicized decision was coming down from above.
The case was going to trial.
The jury was ready. After six hours of deliberation, that followed two days of trial, including 16 hours of testimony from 7 witnesses, a thorough explanation of autonomous cars, after endless objections, rulings, sidebar gestures, and attorney arguments, the jury was ready. Determined to uphold their civic duty and follow the law each juror scribbled their name on the verdict form. The foreperson, Ms. Parker notified the court a verdict had been reached. The bailiff walked through the courtroom’s side door and into the hall to answer the jury’s call.
“That’s great. I’ll let the judge know.”
Of course, the bailiff already knew the jury’s verdict; he had his ear to the deliberation room for the last hour.
The lawyers expecting a “rush-hour verdict” were already sitting in the courtroom.
The judge entered.
“Bring in the jury.”
Led by their foreperson one-by-one, the jurors shuffled in. Clyde was confident, but as usual avoided eye contact with the jurors. His experience taught him jurors were impossible to read, and he knew he would hear their answer soon enough.
“Have you reached a verdict?”, the mad judge asked.
“Yes, we have,” the foreperson replied.
The bailiff handed an envelope to the clerk, who passed it on to the judge. Opening the envelope the judge gazed down at the verdict form and read, “We the jury find the defendant, Jake Dunn…”