In the early morning hours on Christmas Eve, 2014, there was a horrific car accident in El Paso, Texas. According to news reports, local police believed that Joel Garcia was both intoxicated and speeding when he ran a red light and crashed his vehicle into a vehicle driven by Joshua Deal. The impact of the crash ejected one passenger out of the Deal vehicle, trapping Deal and another passenger in his vehicle as it erupted into flames. Mr. Deal and one of the passengers died at the scene; the second passenger died later at a local hospital.
Automobile Accident Leads to Three Dead
The impact left Garcia temporarily unconscious. He regained consciousness just as the police arrived on the scene. They immediately believed Garcia was intoxicated. Lead investigator Andres Rodriquez asked him for a blood and/or breath sample. He refused. Rodriquez was about to leave the accident scene to secure a search warrant for a blood draw when he learned that Garcia was going to be transported to a local hospital. He instructed Officer Steven Torres to accompany Garcia to the hospital, and to immediately inform him if medical personnel inserted an IV or was about to medicate him. Rodriquez was concerned that an IV drip could possibly dilute Garcia’s potential blood-alcohol level.
As soon as Torres and Garcia arrived at the hospital, emergency room medical personnel were standing by to insert an IV drip into the patient’s arm. Torres instructed a hospital security guard to notify Rodriquez at the police station of the development. At this point confusion erupted in the ER. Garcia was uncooperative. He told the nurse not to insert the IV. A doctor in the ER told the nurse not to insert the IV while he conducted an examination.
Officer Demands Blood Draw Without Warrant
Whether or not Torres and the hospital security guard heard this instruction by the doctor is unclear. What is clear is that the duo believed, based on the ongoing ER confusion and the multiple conversations among the medical personnel about Garcia’s treatment, that an IV insertion was imminent. The security guard again called Rodriquez to apprise him of the situation. Rodriquez instructed the security guard to get a sample of Garcia’s blood without the warrant.
Torres and the security guard sought out a phlebotomist to perform the blood draw. When the phlebotomist arrived at the ER, the doctor was still present. She decided not to take a blood sample from Garcia until he doctor told her to do so. As soon as the doctor finished his examination of Garcia and exited the ER, the phlebotomist took two vials of Garcia’s blood and gave them to Torres as she was ordered to do.
A subsequent analysis of Garcia’s blood revealed he had a blood-alcohol of 0.268 at the time of the draw, and that there was the presence of the cocaine metabolite Benzoylecgonine in his blood.
In February 2015, the 24-year-old Garcia, a local professional boxer, was charged with three counts of intoxication manslaughter. He posted a $300,000 bail.
Motion to Suppress Granted
Garcia’s defense counsel filed a motion to suppress the blood draw evidence, alleging it was taken without a warrant in violation of the Fourth Amendment and that the officers involved in the blood draw did not follow proper protocol. The district court conducted an extensive hearing on the motion after which he made both oral and written findings of fact and conclusions of law that the blood draw evidence had to be suppressed.
In dismissing the prosecution’s argument that the warrantless blood draw was justified by “exigent circumstances” (the ER confusion), the trial judge meticulously found that the officers’ belief that there were exigent circumstances was “not credible” but stop short of saying he believed the officers were “lying.” The officer could have obtained a warrant within a reasonable amount of time without creating an undue delay.
The State appealed the trial judge’s suppression ruling. The Eighth District Court of Appeals on February 24, 2017 granted the State’s appeal and vacated the trial court’s ruling. Garcia sought, and secured, discretionary review before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (“CCA”).
On December 12, 2018, in a thorough and comprehensive 32-page ruling, the CCA overturned the ruling by the appeals court and reinstated the trial court suppressing ruling. The primary concern of the CCA was the appeals court’s decision not to defer to the trial court’s extensive findings of fact and its failure to take into consideration that Garcia’s blood contained cocaine metabolites—something the police were not aware of when they ordered the blood draw.
Deference to Fact Finding of Trial Judge
The CCA began its inquiry by pointing out that a defendant bears the burden of proving a warrantless search, and if they do, the burden shifts to the State to prove that a warrant requirement exception applies. The trial judge must conduct a fact-finding hearing after which they must make findings of fact and conclusions of law to support their ruling.
The CCA noted that well-established case law in Texas recognizes that reviewing courts must pay “almost total deference” to the trial judge’s ruling because they are in the best position to assess the credibility of the witnesses and evidence surrounding a warrantless search.
The CCA decided to use the Garcia case to offer guidance to not only the Eighth District Court of Appeals but all other reviewing courts in the State assessing exigent circumstances issues. The CCA then spelled out in detail five specific areas reviewing courts should focus on when exigent circumstances are at issue.
Against this legal backdrop, the CCA then concluded:
“… our holding is based on the sensible notion that ‘a warrantless search must be strictly circumscribed by the exigencies which justify its initiation.’ Or, as the trial judge rather succinctly put it,’[o]nce the exigency ends, it ends.’ The trial judge acted within his discretion to find that, at the time of the search, Rodriguez, Lom, and Torres were collectively aware of facts that would lead an objectively reasonable officer to conclude that any exigency presented by the possibility of medical care had passed. Although we might well have dissected the officers’ awareness of historical facts differently were we in the trial judge’s position, ‘[t]he trial judge decides that fact. The court of appeals does not. We do not. And appellate courts must view the trial judge’s factual findings in the light most favorable to his ultimate conclusion.’”
The Garcia ruling is significant because it reinforces the need for criminal defense attorneys thoroughly investigate the facts, not just the law, surrounding a specific warrantless search, particularly in warrantless blood draws in DWI cases, because it is the facts upon which the trial judge must hang their hat.