In a Warrantless DWI Blood Draw Case, State Offers “Understaffing of Police” as an Exigent Circumstance.
Bonsignore v State (2nd Court of Appeals – Fort Worth, 2016)
After traveling eighty miles an hour in a forty miles per hour zone, Jeremy Bonsignore pulled into a Waffle House and started walking toward the restaurant. Unknown to Bonsignore, law enforcement had been following him for several minutes. Once the officer pulled into the parking lot, he activated his lights and began yelling at Bonsignore to stop walking. Bonsignore turned around, stumbled, and lost his balance. The officer noted the presence of a strong odor of alcohol and that Bonsignore’s eyes appeared glassy.
Bonsignore admitted to having a few drinks earlier in the day, which prompted the officer to conduct several field sobriety tests. Bonsignore failed them and then abruptly refused to do anymore tests or provide a breath or blood sample. Bonsignore was placed under arrest at 1:49 am. Dispatch informed the officer that Bonsignore had two prior DWI convictions, which could amount to Bonsignore being a repeat DWI offender, a felony offense. With this information in mind, the officer instructed a second officer to take Bonsignore to the hospital for a mandatory blood draw. The blood draw was conducted at 2:55 am. Bonsignore did not consent to the taking of his blood and the officer did not obtain a warrant.
Warrantless Blood Draw Issue at Trial
Before trial began, Bonsignore filed a motion to suppress the results of the blood draw, arguing that the blood draw was warrantless, and therefore, unconstitutional. The motion was never officially ruled upon, although the court did take the motion under advisement. During trial, when asked why he ordered the blood draw, the officer said that Bonsignore’s “two prior convictions were his only authority for obtaining the blood draw.” The officer did not attempt to obtain a search warrant, and he acknowledged that Bonsignore did not give his consent to a blood draw.
The officer testified that he relied solely on the statute, Texas Transportation Code 724.012, for authority to order the draw against Bonsignore’s will. Pleading guilty to the charges, the trial court issued Bonsignore a two-year sentence. Bonsignore appealed, arguing that his motion to suppress the evidence should have been ruled upon because the blood draw was taken without his consent and without a search warrant, violating the ruling in Missouri v. McNeely, 133 S. Ct. 1552 (2013). The State argues that (1) Bonsignore’s blood-alcohol level would dissipate over time, (2) he was a repeat felony offender, and (3) the police department was small and understaffed, and that obtaining a warrant in this case would have been overly-burdensome for the officers that night.
Is “Dissipation” an Exigent Circumstance to Justify a Warrantless Search?
In the wake of the McNeely case, the Second Court of Appeals must determine whether Bonsignore’s blood draw was constitutional, and, whether the State may rely on an exigency “emergency circumstances” argument as an exception to the Fourth Amendment.
Texas Transportation Code
Section 724.012(b)(3)(B) states that blood or breath samples may be required to be taken when the suspect is arrested for DWI and he refuses to give the specimen voluntarily, so long as the suspect has two prior DWI convictions, “although [the code] does not expressly authorize taking the specimen without a warrant.” State v. Swan, 483, S.W.3d 760, 764 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 2016, no pet.).
However, “the explicit refusal to submit to blood testing overrides the existence of any implied consent and that implied consent that has been withdrawn by a suspect cannot serve as a substitute for the free and voluntary consent that the Fourth Amendment requires.” State v. Villarreal, 475 S.W.3d 784, 800.
Precedent Case Law: Missouri v. McNeely
“The natural metabolism of alcohol in the bloodstream [does not] present a per se exigent circumstance justifying an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement for nonconsensual blood testing in all drunk-driving cases.” McNeely, 133 S. Ct. at 1556, 1558.
The Second Court of Appeals Weighs In
The Second Court of Appeals agreed with Bonsignore. “The police may not create their own exigency to make a warrantless arrest or search.” Parker v. State, 206 S.W.3d 593, 598 (Tex. Crim. App. 2006). “Exigent circumstances do not meet Fourth Amendment standards if [law enforcement] deliberately creates the [circumstances].” Id.
Here, the Court held, law enforcement knew that it was not a “No Refusal Weekend” in Texas. Further, the police department knew that it only had three officers on duty the entire night Bonsignore was arrested. In fact, understaffing the department was a typical occurrence. There was nothing out of the norm about the number of officers on duty that night. “Deliberately scheduling an insufficient number of patrol officers on an evening shift does not constitute an exigent circumstance.” State v. McClendon, NO. 02-15-00019-CR, 2016 WL 742018 (Tex. App.—Forth Worth, Feb. 25, 2016, no pet.).
Additionally, the department had a protocol for obtaining warrants, even in the absence of magistrates “on call.” Also, there was no earth-shattering emergency or problem that prevented the officers from making attempts to secure a warrant for Bonsignore’s search. The Court makes a point to highlight the efficiency of fax machines for the purposes of securing warrants, “thanks to the fax machine, [law enforcement] could …request a search warrant” and “thanks again to a fax machine…once [law enforcement] had the search warrant, [they] could fax it directly to a hospital instead of driving [the warrant] there.” The argument that the police department is small was unpersuasive for the Second Court of Appeals. For these reasons, the Second Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling, and remanded the case to the trial court for a new trial.