Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Rejects Categorical 4th Amendment Exception for DWI Accident Cases

DWI accidents present a unique challenge for law enforcement. Under normal circumstances, a police officer needs to obtain either a suspect’s permission or a warrant before conducting a blood test to determine potential intoxication levels. Such a test is considered a “search” under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But the courts do make an exception for “exigent circumstances” where the police have “probable cause” of criminal activity but it would be impractical to wait for a warrant.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the “natural dissipation of alcohol in the blood” did not automatically qualify as an exigent circumstances. In other words, just because the defendant was involved in a possible DWI accident, that did not give the police free reign to take a blood sample without a warrant. That said, a trial court could still find, based on the facts of a particular case, that a warrantless blood test was justified.

CCA: Trial Judge Did Not Abuse Discretion in Excluding Warrantless Blood Test Evidence

Despite the Supreme Court’s decision, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently split on the question of whether or not there was still some legal basis to justify a “categorical exemption” to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement in DWI accident cases. The majority held there was no such exemption, and on that basis upheld a trial judge’s decision to suppress the results of a blood test taken without a warrant.

This case, State v. Garcia, originated in El Paso, where in 2014 local police responded to the scene of a car accident that resulted in the death of three people. The lead investigator identified a suspect–the defendant–and requested a blood sample. When the defendant refused, the investigator initially planned to get a warrant. But after the defendant was taken to the hospital, the investigator ordered a warrantless search because he was concerned that the defendant was about to receive medical procedures that might “dilute” his blood-alcohol concentration.

At the defendant’s subsequent trial for intoxication manslaughter, the judge ruled the results of the warrantless blood test inadmissible. The judge said he did not find the police officer’s “belief” and “assessment” that exigent circumstances existed to be “credible.” An intermediate appeals court later reversed the trial judge’s decision, noting the police were faced with a “now or never scenario” and that any further delay in seeking a blood test would have destroyed valuable evidence.

The Court of Criminal Appeals, however, disagreed with the intermediate court and reinstated the trial judge’s decision. The majority held that while it might “have dissected the officers’ awareness of historical facts differently were we in the trial judge’s position,” the trial judge nevertheless acted within his discretion. More importantly, the majority rejected the position–taken by the dissenting justices–that “any time a person suspected of committing a serious drunk-driving offense is taken to a hospital for medical treatment, the Fourth Amendment will indiscriminately tolerate the warrantless seizure of that person’s blood.”

Contact a Houston DWI Accident Lawyer Today

Even if you are suspected of causing a deadly accident due to drunk driving, you still have certain constitutional rights the courts must respect. And if you need legal advice or assistance from an experienced Houston DWI accident defense attorney, contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today.