Friday, May 16, 2014

McNeely strikes again

The State urges that we balance the public and private interests that are implicated in serious DWI cases and find that Texas’s mandatory blood draw statute, section 724.012(b), is a reasonable substitute for the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. -- Weems v. State, No. 04-13-00366-CR, (Tex.App.--San Antonio 2014)
That is a scary argument found in the San Antonio Court of Appeals decision in Weems v. State. The Fourth Amendment is quite clear in its meaning - warrants shall be required to conduct a search. But, even though the language is absolute, our courts have, over the years, whittled away at the edges to such a degree that the Founders wouldn't even recognize what has happened to their Bill of Rights.

And, leading the charge to chip away at the meaning of the Fourth Amendment is the old balancing test. If you don't already realize whenever the Supremes break out the scales in a criminal case, the outcome is not going to be favorable for either the defendant nor the Constitution.

One of the seminal cases in DWI law is Schmerber v. California, 384 US 757 (1966) which made an end run around the Fourth Amendment by finding that a warrantless search may very well be reasonable depending on the totality of the circumstances. The most popular of these circumstances turned out to be exigency. Prosecutors argued for generations that warrantless blood draws were reasonable because alcohol tended to dissipate out of the bloodstream and, if the blood weren't drawn quickly enough, there would be no evidence left to test.

The development of better, more efficient gas chromatographs and the newfound popularity of retrograde guesstimation made exigency less and less of a factor. Meanwhile, states like Texas began enacting so-called implied consent laws as another way to get around the warrant requirement. Texas also enacted a law that made the taking of a blood specimen mandatory when a person died in an alcohol-related crash, when a person was seriously injured in an alcohol-related crash of if the driver suspected of being intoxicated had two or more prior DWI convictions.

And this is where things stood at the time of McNeely.

Then everything changed. As a refresher, in McNeely, the Supreme Court held that the dissipation of blood by itself was insufficient to justify a warrantless blood draw. The Court pointed out that with the advent of No Refusal Weekends and with the decision that affidavits for warrants could be transmitted to the judge via fax, phone or e-mail, it was relatively easy to find a compliant magistrate who would sign on the dotted line and authorize the blood draw.

Texas then began to argue that the implied consent law was its end run around the warrant requirement. Since, in the eyes of the state, every motorist had given their consent to submit to a breath or blood test merely by getting on the road, then the police had a built-in exception to the warrant requirement - consent.

That bit of intellectual dishonesty crashed to earth when the Supreme Court overturned a conviction in Aviles v. State and sent the case back down to Texas for a new trial in line with the holding in McNeely.

In Weems, the defendant was driving after he had been drinking with a friend. He managed to flip his car on the way home. His friend was injured and taken to the hospital. Mr. Weems fled from the scene but was found a short time later. No sobriety tests were performed because Mr. Weems needed medical attention. After Mr. Weems declined to provide a blood specimen, the arresting officer took him to the hospital where a forcible blood draw was conducted. The result showed that, at the time of the accident, Mr. Weems was about three times the legal limit. He was subsequently convicted of driving while intoxicated.

The San Antonio Court of Appeals then proceeded to reverse Mr. Weems' conviction and held that neither the implied consent law, the mandatory blood draw provision of the Transportation Code nor the dissipation of alcohol justified a warrantless blood draw without a showing that an established exception to the warrant requirement existed.

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