The core facts in the case of Chad William Murray are not in dispute. His minor criminal saga began between 1:00 a.m. and 2:00 a.m. on January 16, 2011 when Hill County Deputy Sheriff James McClanahan, who was driving down Highway 22, spotted a black truck parked on the side of the road. With its headlights on, the vehicle’s engine was running as it straddled an improved shoulder and a driveway leading to a fireworks stand. The deputy did not see anyone inside the vehicle as he passed it; however, because the fireworks stand had recently been burglarized, he suspected criminal activity was afoot. He parked his police vehicle and approached the truck. He found Murray asleep in the reclined driver’s seat. The truck’s transmission was in the “park” position and its radio volume was turned up.
Deputy McClanahan had to “beat” on the driver’s side of the vehicle for several minutes before he could awaken Murray. When Murray finally awoke and rolled down the driver’s side window, Deputy McClanahan smelled the odor of alcohol. He quickly noted that Murray’s speech was slurred, his movements sluggish, and he generally appeared intoxicated. When asked if he had been drinking, Murray responded that “he’s had a little.” Deputy McClanahan observed that there was no one else in the vehicle or in the general area. A subsequent search did not reveal any controlled substances or containers in the general area around the parked truck.
Not certified to conduct standard field sobriety tests, Deputy McClanahan radioed for a certified officer to conduct such tests. Department of Public Safety Trooper Frederick Hart responded to the call, and after conducting all the prerequisite tests, Trooper Hart determined Murray was intoxicated for the purposes of DWI (“driving while intoxicated”). Murray arrested, subsequently convicted of misdemeanor DWI, sentenced to one year in the county jail (which was suspended), and fined $1,000. He was placed on community supervision for two years. Having been convicted by a jury, Murray appealed.
On April 15, 2015, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals answered the sole question before the court: whether a person who is passed out behind the wheel of a running vehicle is intoxicated within the meaning to the Texas DWI statute?
This question was important because the Seventh Court of Appeals had reversed Murray’s conviction because it found the mere presence of a person behind the wheel of a running vehicle was insufficient to conclude he had had driven the vehicle while intoxicated to that parked spot. The appeals court focused its decision on the “missing” evidence: whether Murray owned or had a part interest in the fireworks stand and whether there were establishments nearby where alcohol could have been purchased and whether Murray had consumed alcohol at any of these establishments. At the end of the day, the appeals court said that merely being intoxicated behind the wheel of a parked vehicle was insufficient evidence to prove the individual had driven the vehicle to that spot. The court put it this way:
“[A]ppellant was simply found asleep in a running truck while parked off the roadway and mainly in a private driveway. And, while one can infer that someone had to have driven the truck there, we have no evidence as to when or whether the person was inebriated at the time.”
The Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed. The court found that the following factors could support a reasonable inference that Murray had driven the vehicle to the parked location and was intoxicated at the time:
• Murray was in the driver’s seat of the parked truck;
• The vehicle was parked with the engine running;
• Murray was the only person in the vicinity;
• There were no alcoholic beverages or containers in the area;
• Deputy McClanahan immediately smelled alcohol when Murray rolled down the window;
• Murray appeared “very intoxicated” to Deputy McClanahan;
• Murray’s actions were sluggish;
• Murray’s speech was impaired;
• Murray had a difficult time removing his driver’s license from his wallet and Deputy McClanahan ultimately had to remove it;
• Murray handed the deputy a $100 bill from his wallet; and
• Murray admitted he had been drinking.
The Court of Criminal Appeals found that a jury could draw a reasonable inference from these facts that Murray was the only plausible person who could have driven the vehicle to the parked location and had been intoxicated when he did so.
The question not addressed by Court of Criminal Appeals is whether had there been other people in the general area, or empty bottles outside the vehicle, would that have been sufficient to conclude, as the court of appeals did, that the evidence was insufficient to prove that Murray had driven the vehicle while intoxicated.