TDTNews.com - Temple Daily Telegram
DWI blood test use increasing in Texas
by Paul A. Romer
Published: January 1, 2009
The “no refusal program,” in which search warrants are immediately issued to draw blood from DWI suspects who refuse a breathalyzer test, is gaining popularity around the state. Bell County initiated the program last night and will continue today.
In some jurisdictions of Tarrant County, blood is routinely drawn for testing from those refusing a breath test.
Over the past 16 months, Harris County has issued about 300 such warrants during most major “drinking” holidays.
When the city of Austin announced it would institute the “no refusal” program this past Halloween, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas issued a press release in opposition.
“I know Travis County is doing it (running the ‘no refusal’ program) this weekend,” Dotty Griffith, public education director of the ACLU of Texas, said. “I didn’t know that Bell County was doing it, but it doesn’t surprise me. We urge officers to use judgment and not pull people over indiscriminately. There needs to be true probable cause.”
Ms. Griffith was critical about the mechanics of the program, pointing to the probable cause warrant in such cases as a rubber stamp process.
Rather than challenge the constitutionality of such a program, the union complained that such a program takes police off the streets and undermines public safety.
“In our case it’s not pulling people off the streets because we’re adding additional patrols,” said Bell County Sheriff Dan Smith. “This will be a special DWI taskforce.”
Smith said the timeframe for getting a warrant would be greatly reduced with a judge available and prosecutors in place, prepared to respond exclusively to DWI cases.
Bell County District Attorney Henry Garza compared the blood-draw warrants to cases where blood or DNA samples are needed. If a suspect does not consent, a warrant is issued for the samples based on probable cause.
“A number of counties have engaged in this,” Garza said. “We’re simply using the available legal authority.”
Suspects who refuse a breath test prevent prosecutors from obtaining scientific evidence that could help strengthen a case for the state. In Texas, about 50 percent of people pulled over for suspicion of DWI refuse a breath test, according to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.
The rate of people declining breath tests on “no refusal” nights in Harris County has been as low as 35 percent. When combined with mobile testing units, the refusal rate dropped as low as 20 percent.
Blood evidence takes the guesswork out of decisions to prosecute. Only 2 percent of the suspects tested out of Harris County were under the legal limit of 0.08 and had no other intoxication substance in the blood.
Another complaint by the ACLU is that forcing uncooperative people to have their blood drawn creates a general public distrust for police.
The ACLU believes the Texas law that allows 180-day suspension of driver’s licenses for persons who refuse a breathalyzer is an appropriate deterrent. Other civil penalties for refusing to consent to a court-ordered blood test could also be used, according to a prepared ACLU statement.
The “no refusal” program is not seen by the police community as a tool to build trust.
It is more of a deterrent and warning aimed at reducing the number of fatalities on roadways and the intoxicated drivers who may cause them, Garza said.
It is a way to make the roads safer for those who drive without drinking, Garza said.
The number of people compelled to give blood by the county’s participation in a “no refusal” program Wednesday night was expected to be minimal, maybe five people, according to a county official.
The official tally should be available today.
Note: Hours after Bell County officials held a press conference Tuesday to notify the public of its intent to use the “no refusal” program for the first time, former NBA great Charles Barkley was pulled over in Arizona for suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol. He refused a breath test and was given a blood test. Test results are not yet available.