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Prosecutors, police discuss challenging DWI cases

By Jessica Priest
Oct. 19, 2012 at 5:19 a.m.


Unbeknownst to most, prosecuting someone for driving while intoxicated is often as complicated and time-consuming as taking on a murder trial.

There's grappling with expert testimony in regards to blood analysis. There's training rookie cops on how to avoid taking the bait from seasoned defense attorneys keen on antagonizing them for their investigating techniques. And there's dealing with a defendant, who, in the jury's eyes, often resembles their next-door neighbor, a productive member of society with no criminal history.

That's why local law enforcement officers and attorneys had a meeting of the minds of sorts at the Victoria College's student center Friday.

The six-hour training - hosted by the more than 100-year-old Texas District and County Attorneys Association - provided the group with tools needed to boost conviction rates for a crime the U.S. started buckling down on in the early 2000s.

"What separates you from other drivers?" Tarrant County Prosecutor Sherry Armstrong, the event's speaker, asked, simulating how she'd start and end each trial by plucking at jurors' heartstrings. "All you have is a little white line and whole lot of faith that everyone else out there has 100 percent of their faculties."

She then posed scenarios that, if left untouched, can often unravel a DWI case and challenged the estimated 50 participants to find solutions.

Some hypotheticals included confronting drivers who refuse field sobriety tests. But, if they have two or more prior convictions for drunken driving, they're subject to a blood draw. Sometimes people claim they have injuries that'd make it impossible for them to do the tests correctly, others pretend to have asthma attacks, said Grapevine Police Sargent Marc Shimmick.

He encouraged investigators to document everything - whether that is snapping photos of a car cup holder overflowing with beer caps on an iPhone, recording everything on a dashboard camera, listening in on jailhouse phone calls or tracking down itemized bar tabs and medical records.

W. Clay Abbott, a DWI prosecutor, said police officers are often under such extreme time constraints they skimp on details in their written reports later, even if they specifically remember the person inverting their consonants.

"So trying to write out this great American novel," is challenging, he said. "That shouldn't be surprising."

And sometimes technology doesn't have the intended affect.

Victoria County Assistant District Attorney Eli Garza said jurors can focus on a video from the scene and expect it to be dramatic.

"A lot of the time when we think of someone intoxicated we think of someone who is drunk and throwing up ... That's not the legal definition," he said.

Intoxicated means having an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more, according to the Texas Penal Code.

Assistant District Attorney Luther Easley said the course was a welcome refresher.

He's coordinating with judges on a system that would allow them to sign search warrants after hours for blood draws, which generally lose their ability to stand up in court if not tested quickly after the arrest.

Garza said he hopes that system will be in operation by next year but recognizes Victoria has fewer judges than bigger jurisdictions. He said in Harris County there's a judge who works late into the night for that reason. In Victoria, they typically work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

There's anywhere from 200 to 250 DWI cases presented to the Victoria County District Attorney's office annually, Garza said.

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