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Police are trained to take blood samples for DWI

By Mark Agee
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Thirteen Dalworthington Gardens police officers are now trained to draw blood samples from motorists suspected of drunken driving in an effort to speed up arrests and gather better evidence than traditional breath tests.

 

And when suspects don't voluntarily agree to give blood, officers are getting search warrants allowing them to collect a sample. The anti-drunken-driving campaign is called "We Just Can't Take No for an Answer."

"This is just another tool for us, another arrow in our quiver," said Bill Waybourn, chief of the 34-member Dalworthington Gardens Department of Public Safety.

The city of about 2,300 borders Pantego and is surrounded by Arlington. It has the only law enforcement agency in Tarrant County taking such aggressive steps, said Richard Alpert, misdemeanor division chief for the Tarrant County district attorney's office.

Tela Mange, a Texas Department of Public Safety spokeswoman, said she had not heard of Texas agencies enacting such a policy.

State law requires that investigators collect blood tests in accidents involving fatalities or serious injuries. Some cities, such as Fort Worth, obtain warrants for blood samples in cases involving repeat offenders, Alpert said.

But most agencies don't go to the trouble of obtaining warrants for blood in run-of-the-mill arrests for driving while intoxicated, he said.

Alpert, Waybourn and other law enforcement sources said more suspects, especially those who have been through the criminal justice system, are refusing to cooperate with police during drunken-driving stops.

The suspects refuse because they are afraid to register more than the legal limit of 0.08 percent, police said.

Sgt. Mike Taylor said the Dalworthington Gardens policy became necessary because many drunken-driving suspects were refusing breath tests.

Those who refuse breath tests can have their driver's license revoked for 180 days by the state, "but DWI penalties are so stiff, people still refused," Taylor said.

Mange said the state DPS started license revocation proceedings against 50,679 Texas drivers during 2004 for refusing breath tests.

And when suspects do cooperate, their attorneys often challenge the accuracy of breath tests, Alpert said.

"It is much harder for the defense to mount a successful challenge to a blood test," Alpert said.

Waybourn said his department still owns breath tests but will only use them in special cases, such as when a medical condition precludes drawing blood.

Alpert said prosecutors routinely prove driving-while-intoxicated cases without a breath or blood test, but only with the arresting officer's testimony, and it's much more difficult.

"Most of the cases we try are refusal cases," Alpert said. "But with blood evidence, the cases are very solid. I wouldn't be surprised if the Dalworthington Gardens officers didn't even have to show up in court much. Their suspects will probably plead guilty."

Training officers

About 38 percent of the Dalworthington Gardens police force has received blood technician certification since June, said Sgt. Mike Taylor, who supervised the effort.

The curriculum for the program was approved by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education, Taylor said.

Waybourn said the department's small size made the training affordable.

A doctor who volunteers as a medical adviser for the department led the 20 hours of classroom training, Waybourn said. The doctor also supervised as officers practiced drawing blood at Arlington Memorial Hospital before being certified as blood technicians, he said.

"Most of the cost was work hours for our officers," Waybourn said.

As a public safety department -- a combined police and fire department -- all officers are cross-trained as paramedics or emergency medical technicians, too, so they already had some medical knowledge, Waybourn said.

By having officers take samples, police hope to trim the average time between arrest and blood extraction from three to four hours to 90 minutes, Waybourn said.

Frank Colosi, a cooperating lawyer with the Greater Fort Worth Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, had not heard of the Dalworthington Gardens policy and said he did not know whether convictions based on such evidence would stand up to appeals.

"As far as the constitutional implications on the face of it, I'm not sure of the legality because it's so new -- but it's kind of eerie," Colosi said. "It's kind of grotesque that the government can come and take your blood."

The first trial of one of the 10 suspects arrested under the new DWI policy is scheduled for next month, Taylor said.

Taylor said the change was necessary because enforcement hasn't put much of a dent in DWIs.

"We had to do something to try and save lives," Taylor said. "This is what we came up with to ensure that we can still get a conviction if the suspect refuses to give us a sample."

Tim Cole, the district attorney for Montague, Archer and Clay counties, said officers in his jurisdiction and several others seek search warrants for blood samples when the subject refuses a breath test. Agencies in Cole's jurisdiction implemented the policy about a year ago, he said.

"I talked with other DAs, and we had noticed that a lot of people, especially those who were repeat offenders, had been advised to refuse Breathalyzers, or even refuse a walk-and-turn test," Cole said.

"It was a real trend, and I thought we should do something about it," Cole said. "And blood tests are the best evidence you can have in DWI cases."

Waybourn said he is already fielding calls from other agencies interested in learning more about the policy and how his officers are doing.

"While it's very intensive to get started, we think it's worth it," Waybourn said. "We've got to do something to try and keep drunk drivers off the streets and keep them from circumventing prosecution."

IN THE KNOW

How the process works

After a driver has failed a field sobriety test, the suspect is taken into custody.

At the police station, police conduct a videotaped interview and ask the suspect to voluntarily submit to giving a blood sample.

If the suspect refuses, police take the evidence they have and seek an evidentiary search warrant. Several judges in the area have volunteered to be on call to sign warrants, said Bill Waybourn, chief of the Dalworthington Gardens Department of Public Safety.

If the judge approves the warrant, police take a blood sample.

SOURCE: Dalworthington Gardens Department of Public Safety

MAP: DWI POLICY; STAR-TELEGRAM DAVE SEYMOUR

 

Clemente DeLaCruz
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