On average, 94 percent of all state felony convictions are the result of guilty pleas. Texas most assuredly falls within this range.
On January 12, 2012, Sandra Coy Briggs entered a plea of no contest to intoxication manslaughter of a public servant—a violation of Texas Penal Code §§ 49.08, 49.09(b2).
Sergio Antillon was a member of the San Antonio Police Department on October 14, 2010 when he stopped his vehicle to assist a stranded motorist whose pickup truck had struck a guard rail. It was 2:00 a.m. Antillon and the driver of the pickup were standing on the shoulder of the road when Briggs’s vehicle crashed into the rear of the truck. The crash impact slung officer Antillon into the air and onto the guard rail. He died from the injuries suffered from that impact.
Accident investigators who arrived at the scene suspected that Briggs was intoxicated. These suspicions escalated after she refused to give a breath or blood sample. She was informed that her refusal would lead to a forced blood draw because the accident involved an injury or death. Briggs nonetheless signed a refusal form before she was escorted to a police station infirmary where a nurse took a blood sample at 5:15 a.m.—more than three hours after the fatal accident. The police did not obtain a warrant for the blood draw.
Based on the intoxication finding of the blood draw, Briggs was arrested and indicted by a Bexar County grand jury. Prior to her trial, Briggs’s defense attorney thoroughly researched the law on forced blood draws under Texas Transportation Code § 724.012. In an October 3, 2018 opinion, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals spelled out what the law was on forced blood draws in January 2012:
“When Briggs pled no contest in 2012, the Texas Transportation Code section 724.011
provided that a person arrested for driving while intoxicated ‘is deemed to have consented’
to a taking of their blood or breath specimen. This ‘implied consent’ provision was limited
by the terms of section 724.013, which provided that, if a person refused to submit to the
taking of a blood or breath specimen, the specimen could not be taken except as provided by
the ‘mandatory-blood-draw’ provisions in section 724.012(b).26 Section 724.012(b)(1) provided that, if a person was arrested under suspicion of driving while intoxicated, and that
person refused to provide a blood or breath specimen voluntarily, a peace officer could
require the taking of a blood or breath specimen of that person if there had been an accident,
and as a direct result of the accident, a person has suffered serious bodily injury or death.”
Based on these statutes, and several the state appellate court decisions concerning the application of them, defense counsel informed Briggs that there was no basis to file a motion to suppress on Fourth Amendment grounds that the blood draw evidence had been obtained unconstitutionally.
No Contest Plea Results in 45 Year Sentence
Briggs’s trial got underway in January 2012. Shortly after a jury had been empaneled, Briggs elected to enter a plea of no contest to the intoxication manslaughter charge and allow the jury to decide the issue of punishment. The jury made a guilt finding and accessed a sentence of 45 years against Briggs. The severe sentence was based on the jury’s determination that she had used her vehicle as a deadly weapon, and no doubt, the emotional impact of the death of a police officer.
Law Changes 15 Months Later
Fifteen months after Briggs’s conviction, the U.S. Supreme Court on April 17, 2013 issued its opinion in McNeely v. Missouri which dramatically altered the legal landscape of forced blood draws in suspected DWI cases. The high court found that the quick dissipation of blood-alcohol alone is not a per se exigency sufficient to justify dispensing of the search warrant requirement before taking a blood draw. This was the reason the police did not to seek a warrant before compelling Briggs to undergo a forced blood draw.
Based on McNeely, Briggs, through new counsel, filed a motion for a new trial, arguing primarily that her trial counsel should have anticipated McNeely based on the shifting jurisprudence concerning forced blood draws in 2012. The trial court conducted a hearing on the motion on February 18, 2015.
In denying the motion, the trial judge found that the law in place at the time of Briggs’s no contest plea created an “implied consent” allowing the police to take a forced blood draw without the person’s consent and without a warrant. The trial judge also found that Briggs’s trial attorney had thoroughly researched this issue before he advised her to enter the no contest plea, and, thus, had provided her with proper representation.
An en banc panel of the Court of Appeals, Corpus Christi-Edinburg, on November 21, 2017 disagreed with the trial court’s denial of the new trial motion in the Briggs case, finding:
“Briggs’s motion for a new trial challenged the voluntariness of her plea—whether Briggs’s [trial] counsel misinformed her regarding the admissibility of blood evidence obtained through a warrantless blood draw. This was the issue before the trial court and not the presence of exigent circumstances. We cannot conclude that the trial court could have implicitly found that Briggs’s plea was knowingly and voluntarily at the time of trial: such a factual finding would be unreasonable and unsupported by the record.”
Texas Appeals Court Finds Law at Time of Plea Controls
In its October 3, 2018 opinion, the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the Thirteenth Court of Appeals decision on both the exigent circumstances and trial counsel’s misrepresentation of the law issues. The thrust of the appeals court decision, however, was this:
“When a defendant waives the right to have a jury determine guilt or innocence and admits or does not contest guilt, the defendant does so under the law existing at the time of the plea. The fact that Briggs’s attorney did not anticipate subsequent changes in the law does not impugn the truth or reliability of Briggs’s plea.”
This was a difficult case for Briggs’s trial counsel. He could only advise his client as to the state of the law as it existed at the time of her no contest plea. He could not anticipate McNeely and its retroactive application. But the Court of Criminal Appeals decision creates a tragic situation for Susan Briggs – she cannot benefit from McNeely and its retroactive application as she would have been had she not entered the no contest plea. She must serve that 45-year sentence.
It is for this reason that we must support the en banc finding of the Thirteenth Court of Appeals over the Court of Criminal Appeals decision. Both justice and the law supported a new trial finding in the Briggs case.