By Kathi Bliss
State and local cops across Texas have the daunting task this weekend of measuring public safety against the personal rights of drunk driving suspects.
As they do every holiday weekend, the Texas Department of Public Transportation (TxDOT) has committed to cracking down on drunk driving, and a new law that went into effect on Tuesday will not only stiffen the penalties for that offense, but will enhance police responsibility in collecting evidence and prosecutors’ ability to prove a suspect’s guilt.
A controversial law enacted by the 81st Texas Legislature and put into effect on Sept. 1 will allow police to require suspects of the offense of Driving While Intoxicated to submit a blood sample if they are involved in an accident causing bodily injury, if they are stopped for DWI with a child under the age of 15 in the vehicle, or if the officer has strong reason to believe the suspect has two or more prior convictions for the offense, Caldwell County District Attorney Trey Hicks said on Monday.
“In the most serious of DWI cases – the felony cases – this law will allow officers to draw blood, even if the suspect refuses to submit a sample at the scene,” Hicks said. “While this won’t really have an impact on [the bulk of Caldwell County’s DWI cases], it will allow us another tool to protect the public from the most serious cases – those that injure others or endanger children.”
Hicks said use of the new law would require cooperation not only from his office and local law enforcement agencies, but also from area emergency rooms.
“There won’t be cops out on the street taking blood samples,” he said. “The draw has to be done by a licensed phlebotomist, and the hospitals should have those on staff 24 hours a day.”
Critics of the law suggest forcing a suspect to submit to a mandatory blood draw is a violation of the suspect’s rights, and the worst sort of personal intrusion. Additionally, scientists agree that blood alcohol content, one of the key factors in determining guilt or innocence in DWI cases, changes over time as the body metabolizes alcohol.
The lapse of time between when a suspect is stopped for suspicion of driving while intoxicated and when the blood is drawn could, in some cases, mean the difference between a suspect testing below and above the legal limit.
Austin criminal defense attorney Jon Evans, who also defends clients in Caldwell County, does not believe the law will deter drunken driving. He did note that in the most serious cases, the state has a “vested interest in pursuing the preservation of evidence.”
“With regard to a non-injury case, I believe that the drawing of blood constitutes an unreasonable search and seizure of a person,” he said.
Last year, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo fell under heavy fire when he instructed his officers to institute a “mandatory blood draw” policy. Although many in the general public thought the policy was unreasonably intrusive for suspects, it garnered the attention of legislators, and was finally passed as a statewide law earlier this year.
The law might get put to the test this weekend, as TxDOT has committed to cracking down on drunken driving over the holiday weekend.
“Every hour, two Texans are killed or injured in an alcohol-related crash,” said Carol Rawson, TxDOT’s Interim Traffic Operations Director. “We hope by supporting this special stepped-up enforcement effort and encouraging drivers to plan ahead to get home safely, we can make Texas roads safer for everyone this Labor Day.”
Convicted first-time DWI offenders can pay a fine up to $2,000 and lose their driver’s license for as long as a year. They may also face up to six months in jail. Safety officials say costs associated with drunk driving arrest and conviction can add up to more than $17,000 for the suspect in legal fees, bail, probation and court costs and increased insurance premiums.
In 2007, 1,672 people died in Texas in alcohol-related accidents.