Monday, July 23, 2012

Swearing on the telephone

A few days ago Scott Greenfield over at Simple Justice picked up on a piece written by Walter Olson decrying the use of a judge's gavel in an anti-drunk driving ad. The ad implied that the robed ones were in bed with the state when it came to DWI prosecutions.

Now anyone who has spent considerable time in the criminal courthouse knows that this relationship isn't strictly limited to drunk driving cases.

The latest example of this is a decision handed down earlier this year by the state appeals court out of Waco, Texas in which the court took everything you thought you knew about affidavits and tossed it out on its ear.

Ms. Katherine Clay found herself arrested by a state trooper on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. When the officer asked her to blow into the state's breath test machine, she exercised her right to say no. That, apparently, didn't sit too well with the officer who decided he wanted blood.

The officer then prepared an affidavit for a search warrant and called up a judge.County Court at Law Judge A. Lee Harris picked up the phone and, after an exchange of pleasantries, swore the officer to tell the truth. Now I have no knowledge as to whether the officer's fingers were crossed behind his back, but after "taking the oath," the officer faxed the affidavit to the judge who dutifully (we certainly can't have judges actually read and think about these things before blindly affixing their signatures to them) signed it and issued a warrant authorizing the officer to have a nurse stick a needle into Ms. Clay's arm for an offense one step removed from a traffic ticket.

In so doing, the berobed ones took a decidedly activist stance and redefined the meaning of the word affidavit. They also looked to how the federal courts handle situations involving the use of affidavits, telephones and trampling the rights of defendants. But I suppose that a little activism is alright when it serves the purpose of the state in a criminal prosecution and even Texas' long history of antagonism toward los federales is tempered if a way around that pesky little Fourth Amendment can be found.

Although the Government Code defines an affidavit as a writing signed by the maker and sworn to before an officer authorized to administer oaths, TEX. GOV'T CODE ANN. § 312.011(1) (West 2005), we agree with the Smith opinion that it is the act of swearing, the taking of the oath, that is essential to the validity of the affidavit. The purpose of the oath "is to call upon the affiant's sense of moral duty to tell the truth and to instill in him a sense of seriousness and responsibility." Smith v. State, 207 S.W.3d 787, 790 (Tex. Crim. App. 2006). The affidavit in this case provides, "The undersigned Affiant, being a peace officer under the laws of Texas and being duly sworn, on oath makes the following statement and accusations." It is signed by Ortega as the affiant and includes a signed jurat stating that it was subscribed and sworn to before the magistrate. In this instance, the personal familiarity of the trooper and the judge with each other's voice provides very strong indicia of truthfulness, trustworthiness, and reliability so as to call upon Trooper Ortega's "sense of moral duty to tell the truth and instill in him a sense of seriousness and responsibility." Id. 
Therefore, under the facts of this case, a face-to-face meeting between the trooper and the judge was not required and the making of the oath over the telephone did not invalidate the search warrant. Accordingly, the trial court did not err in denying Clay's motion to suppress.

But how did this entire scenario develop? What led to an officer calling a judge up on the phone to swear to his account of the traffic stop? Why was the officer faxing a warrant application to a judge in the middle of the night?

This was but a routine traffic stop - the same stop that occurs in town after town across this state every night of the week. There was no accident. No one was injured. If I had to guess I'd say that Ms. Clay was either speeding or didn't use her blinker to signal a lane change in the middle of the night.

If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say that Ms. Clay was caught up in the snare of a No Refusal Weekend. The judge would have been recruited either by prosecutors or the police to volunteer to sign (not to review and scrutinize - but just to sign) search warrants authorizing forcible blood draws if a motorist refused to blow into the breath test machine. The judge was made one of The Team - a team consisting of police, prosecutors and judges willing to ignore the Bill of Rights.

And if the appeals court were to have a backbone and a willingness to be an separate and independent branch of government, the No Refusal Weekend would be no more.

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