'No refusal' weekend combats drinking and driving

By Samirah Swaleh

This weekend, Tarrant County is stepping up efforts to combat drinking and driving. The Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s office is issuing a “no refusal” policy beginning at 9:30 p.m. the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
The policy will remain in effect until 5:30 a.m. Monday. The Tarrant County Criminal DA’s Office received a grant to implement the program during every major holiday weekend. It will likely go into effect during Christmas and New Year’s as well.
What it means:
If a police officer pulls over a driver suspected of being intoxicated and that person refuses to submit to a breathalyzer, the officer can apply for a warrant to take a biological sample to prove it. In Tarrant County, this means arresting the suspect and drawing blood from the suspect at the jail or at a nearby hospital. During holiday weekends, judges are on call to grant warrants within minutes if officers can demonstrate probable cause that a driver is intoxicated.
However, Tarrant County Sherriff’s spokesman Terry Grisham said every day in Tarrant County is “no refusal” day. The county’s policy year-round is to compel suspected drunk drivers to submit to toxicology screenings.
“This is something we take seriously. But not all the municipalities in the county have the resources to do it year-round,” Grisham said. “That’s why the DA’s office organizes this.”
Grant money from the Texas Department of Transportation pays for nurses to draw blood at three traffic stops during designated “no refusal” weekends. These stops are located in Fort Worth, North Richland Hills and Dalworthington Gardens. During “no refusal” weekends, Tarrant County judges also rotate “on call” shifts in order to grants warrants at all hours of the night.
“Police need warrants as quickly as possible if they have reason to believe someone is drunk. After so long, the person sobers up,” said Samantha Jordan, communications officer for the Tarrant County Criminal DA’s Office.
Before the program, an arresting officer had to find a judge to sign a warrant. DWIs, however, are most frequently issued late at night or early in the morning.
Evidence like a toxicology report, also secures a conviction, Jordan said. “Without it, all we have is the testimony from a police officer.”
In Jefferson County, the program has also shortened the amount of time taken by the court system, since most DWI defendants with damning toxicology reports usually take responsibility for their crimes without the need for a judge.
“DWI cases, for years, were the most common cases we try. Now, they’re still on of the most common,” Jordan said.
In Tarrant County, Jordan said the “no refusal” program serves a dual-purpose.
“It’s a great opportunity for our police departments to work together to take care of this problem and keep the streets safe, and it really serves as a deterrent,” Jordan said.
First time DWI offenders can be fined up to $2,000, serve two days to 180 days in jail, have their driver’s licenses suspended, or be forced to pay a fee of $1,000 to $2,000 a year to maintain their driver’s licenses. Repeat offenders can be fined up to $4,000 or spend up to a year in jail, as well pay heavier fines for maintaining a driver’s license.
The constitutionality of the program has been heavily debated. Last year, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled police officers had to have a warrant in hand before they could force suspects to submit to a blood draw. The decision was based on a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that determined drawing blood from a DWI suspect without a warrant violated the suspect’s constitutional right against unreasonable search and seizure.
This has always been the protocol in Tarrant County. The county gets around it by having judges on the clock to review and sign warrants.
An ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) representative told Salon in 2012, however, that judges rarely decline to sign warrants, noting that if there is probable cause to make an arrest, there is probable cause for a search warrant.
Jordan said police officers look for specific signs of intoxication before making an arrest. Police can also conduct a field sobriety test. They’re taught to recognize several clues of intoxication by asking the suspect to perform a series of motions like standing on one leg, walking and turning.
Grishman said it’s difficult to judge the “success” of the program, but said, “If we save just one life, that’s worth it.”
Jordan said there were 40 DWI arrests during Halloween weekend, the last “no refusal” weekend this year. Last year around Halloween, there were more than 50. The names of those arrested were posted on the DA’s website, another way to deter drunk drivers from getting on the road.
In 2014, there were 1,624 DUI-related crashes in Tarrant County, resulting in 47 fatalities. In 2013, there were 1,704 DUI-related crashes and 50 deaths.
“We have all been affected by drunk driving in some way or another, including myself,” Jordan said. “This is just one way we can keep our roads as safe as possible.”