Explaining the Warrant Requirement for Blood Alcohol Tests in Texas

No one doubts that drunk driving is a terrible practice. Still, measures taken by the State of Texas to deter drunk driving continue to face uncertainty. Recent court cases have mainly focused on whether police officers are required to obtain a warrant before submitting suspects to blood alcohol tests.

In 2009, the State legislature amended Section 724.012 of the Transportation Code to permit warrantless blood tests in situations where a suspect refuses a breath test and one of the following situations applies: (1) the suspect is involved in an accident where someone other than the suspect is taken to a hospital for treatment for a bodily injury; (2) the suspect is arrested for DWI with a child passenger; (3) the officer has credible belief that the suspect has two prior DWI offenses or one prior conviction for intoxication manslaughter; (4) the officer has credible belief that the suspect has a previous conviction for intoxication assault or DWI with a child passenger.

The situation could play out like this: if a suspect were stopped for suspicion of driving while intoxicated (DWI), the officer would first request a breath test. If a suspect refused a breath test, the officer could then submit them to a blood test without first getting a warrant if one of the above conditions were present. If not, the officer would have to obtain a warrant from a qualified judge or magistrate before proceeding with a blood test.

Police departments throughout Texas followed these guidelines for the most part until 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Missouri v. McNeely. The case arose when McNeely was subjected to a warrantless blood test that found that his blood alcohol level was well above the legal limit. After being convicted of DWI, McNeely appealed his case, arguing that the warrantless blood test amounted to an unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Prosecutors argued that if not for the blood test, the evidence of McNeely's intoxication would have disappeared (presumably through the process of metabolizing the alcohol over time). The Supreme Court disagreed. It found that involuntary blood tests are searches within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and thus cannot be exempted from the warrant requirement.

Police departments in Texas, including Austin and San Antonio, were quick to react to the ruling and stopped administering warrantless blood tests. Although the Court's ruling did leave open the possibility that a warrantless blood test could take place in emergency or exigent circumstances, it offered police officers very little guidance on how to decide when such circumstances exist. The opinion did, however, reject what it called "categorical"—that is, overly broad—exceptions to the warrant requirement. It did not take very long before the McNeely holding was used to directly challenge a conviction that was obtained under Section 724.012 of the Transportation Code.

In June 2011, Antonio Aviles was arrested in San Antonio after police administered a warrantless blood test pursuant to Section 724.012(b)(3)(B) of the Transportation Code. Prior to his trial, Mr. Aviles unsuccessfully challenged the inclusion of the evidence obtained via the warrantless blood test as a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Mr. Aviles appealed the trial court's inclusion of the warrantless blood test evidence to the State's Fourth Court of Appeals, but that court agreed with the findings of the trial court. Aviles continued to appeal, eventually reaching the U.S. Supreme Court. By that time, the Court's decision in McNeely had changed the way that courts looked at warrantless blood tests. The Court accordingly sent Aviles' case back down to the Fourth Court of Appeals for reconsideration in light of McNeely.

In August of this year, the Fourth Court of Appeals took another look at Aviles' case and held that the warrantless blood test did indeed violate his Fourth Amendment rights. Perhaps just as important was that the Fourth Court of Appeals applied one of its own holdings— Weems v. State—in which it found that the Transportation Code created the kind of impermissible categorical exceptions to the warrant requirement mentioned in McNeely.

Despite the Fourth Court of Appeals' opinion in the Aviles case, there remain no statewide guidelines on how to treat the Transportation Code's exceptions to the warrant requirement in light of McNeely. Police departments in larger jurisdictions such as Bexar County have "no-refusal" policies in which officers simply secure warrants for blood tests any time that suspected drunk drivers refuse breath tests. But less resourceful jurisdictions may have a harder time finding judges and magistrates qualified to issue warrants. For the moment, however, police everywhere are required to obtain a warrant when possible before administering blood alcohol tests.

Our San Antonio DWI lawyer helps fight for those that have been arrested and accused of drunk driving. With years of experience and an excellent track record, Attorney Lara makes himself available for his clients whenever they need him. When you see those flashing lights, contact The Law Office of Guillermo Lara Jr. right away.

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