Texas Court: Warrant Needed to Draw Blood in DWI Cases

 

Wednesday, Nov 26, 2014 •

Drawing the blood of an uncooperative drunken driving suspect in Texas without a search warrant is unconstitutional, the state’s highest criminal court ruled on Wednesday.

The decision by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals likely invalidates state law that had provided police with several circumstances in which they didn’t need a warrant to obtain a blood sample from a driving-while-intoxicated suspect who refused to agree to such a request, according to legal experts.

The appeals court’s decision follows a 2013 ruling in which the U.S. Supreme Court said that police usually must try to obtain a search warrant from a judge before ordering blood tests for drunken-driving suspects.

“We hold that a nonconsensual search of a DWI suspect’s blood conducted … when undertaken in the absence of a warrant or any applicable exception to the warrant requirement, violates the Fourth Amendment,” the Texas court wrote in its ruling. The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

In the case before the Texas court, David Villarreal, a Corpus Christi-area man, was arrested in 2012 on suspicion of DWI. Villarreal, who had previous DWI convictions, declined a request from police to provide a blood sample. Despite the refusal, the arresting officer obtained a sample, citing a section of the state’s Transportation Code that allows law enforcement to obtain a sample without a warrant if the person had previously been convicted on DWI-related charges. The trial judge in Villarreal’s case granted a defense motion to throw out the blood test results, which had determined he was intoxicated.

State law also provides law enforcement with several other exceptions to obtaining a blood sample without a warrant, including if there was an accident in which a person was killed or injured.

The appeals court ruled that all those exceptions in the Transportation Code were unconstitutional.

“Ever since (the Supreme Court ruling), the writing was on the wall. Every prosecutor in Texas knew that at some point, these exceptions to the warrant rule were no longer going to be useable,” said Houston criminal defense attorney Grant Scheiner. “Smart prosecutors and police agencies have been planning for this.”

Shortly after the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2013, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office in Houston instituted a policy of obtaining search warrants for DWI suspects who declined to voluntarily give a blood sample, said Alison Baimbridge, chief of the office’s vehicular crimes section.

Scheiner said it’s unlikely the Legislature can modify state law to leave in any exceptions allowing warrantless blood draws.

“We can applaud the court of criminal appeals for doing the right thing. But it’s not like they had much choice,” he said.

Calls to the Nueces County district attorney and to Villareal’s attorney were not immediately returned Wednesday.

 

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