The Court of Criminal Appeals handed down its decision in Burnett v. State today holding that trial courts must tailor the definition of “intoxication” in DWI jury instructions to the facts raised in trial.
The intoxication facts in Burnett were as follows. The accused was involved in an accident, he had difficulty getting out of his car, and the officer claimed to have caught a “whiff” of alcohol. Two officers at the scene testified they believed Burnett was intoxicated and he failed three field sobriety tests. Burnett denied drinking. The officers also found hydrocodone pills in his jacket but there was no evidence as to its use or effects on Burnett. Burnett wasn’t even asked specifically if he knew what kind of pills they were although he was asked whether he had a prescription for “those” pills.
Prosecutors argued that Burnett’s possession of the pills was admissible as (a prosecutor favorite) “same-transaction contextual evidence” which the Eastland Court of Appeals later found to be error.
Prosecutors also argued that the entire definition of intoxication should be given to juries regardless of the evidence raised at trials. The defense argued that a jury charge not tailored to the facts invites juries to speculate about other possible intoxicants which could lead to convicting innocent Texans who were tired or simply performed poorly on standardized field sobriety tests.
Burnett’s jury was given a charge that allowed them to find someone intoxicated “by not having the normal use of his mental and physical faculties by reason of the introduction of alcohol, a controlled substance, a drug, a dangerous drug, a combination of two or more of those substances, or any other substance into his body.” While this is the complete definition of intoxication found in Chapter 49 of the Penal Code, the defense objected to the charge and argued that the only definition given to the jury should have been “by not having the normal use of his mental and physical faculties by reason of the introduction of alcohol.”
The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with the defense argument and ruled that a trial court must deliver to the jury a written charge setting forth the “law applicable to the case.” Part of the duty of a trial court includes applying the law to the facts of the case. Where there is no evidence that the defendant ingested a substance that caused him to become intoxicated, it is improper to give the jury an instruction that would allow them to speculate upon it.
A trial court must provide the jury with a charge that is tailored to the facts presented at trial. It is improper to give into the prosecutor’s request to submit the entire definition of “intoxicated” when the facts raised during the trial do not give rise to the complete definition.
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