Austin Police Department Announces DWI Crackdown for the Holidays

Austin Police Department has announced that anyone who is stopped by police this month will also be given a flyer warning people of the dangers of drunk driving. Austin law enforcement agencies were urging citizens to drive safely this holiday season and were joined by the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Travis County Attorney’s Office, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). The holiday seasons have upticks in DWI arrests and alcohol-related driving fatalities.

Officials urged drivers to be responsible and to adhere to a strict policy of no alcohol for drivers. “The goal is to plan ahead. Have a designated driver,” Robbie Barrera with the Department of Public Safety said. “A designated driver isn’t the person at the party that’s had the least amount of alcohol. A designated driver is the person that’s had no amount of alcohol.”

The city of Austin has had 74 traffic fatalities this year, and 60% have involved alcohol.

DPS is boosting patrols between Dec. 21 and Jan. 1. There will be increased staffing and patrols will be working overtime especially on holiday days themselves such as Dec. 24 and Dec. 25.

The flyer that is being handed out to people who are stopped by police details the deaths of Mayra Vega, 18, and Emmanuel Hernandez, 16, Travis High School Students who were killed by a drunk driver in 2006.

Will New Texas DWI Laws Pass to Allow for Sobriety Checkpoints?

The Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee met Monday in Austin to discuss creative ways to curb DWI in the state. San Antonio police Deputy Chief Anthony Trevino urged legislators to allow for permanent DWI checkpoints that would allow law enforcement to stop drivers and do routine sobriety tests near “drunk driving hot spots.” The deputy police chief’s idea was opposed by Jim Harrington of the Texas Civil Rights Project who said that this would allow for police abuse of power.

Harrington said, “Once you start setting these roadblocks, you are basically saying the government has control over your movement.”

State Representative Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, the committee chairman, wanted “creative ways” to reduce the number of DWI’s in Texas, and said that the committee was looking for a change in DWI laws to “get on the front end of the problem.” In 2010, drunk drivers with a blood alcohol level higher than 0.08 killed 1,259 people on the Texas roadways. California, which has the second highest number of DWI deaths in the country, had 791 deaths in 2010 caused by drunk drivers.

Gallego said, “It’s always bothersome when California does something better than Texas. California – with more cars, more drivers and more people – still has less DWI-related deaths than Texas does.” This hearing was Pete Gallego’s last in the state Capitol, as he was elected on November 6th to represent U.S. House District 23.

Bexar County (San Antonio) District Attorney Susan Reed expanded “no refusal” weekends to every day of the year starting in April 2012. This means that anyone suspected of DWI in Bexar County will be required to have their blood tested if they refuse the breathalyzer. Reed said of their policy, “We are now the largest metro area in Texas to have an absolute no-refusal policy.”

Bill Lewis, MADD’s public policy liaison, asked legislators to support sobriety checkpoints by passing laws to allow police officers to conduct them. He said checkpoints could save 200 lives in Texas every year. Lewis said of lawmakers, “We have asked them to provide those guidelines for, what is it 18 years? They haven’t done it, so may it’s time to try something else.” He said he would be surprised if the checkpoints do get passed into law because he recognizes that some see checkpoints as government playing “big brother.”

Lewis did suggest to the Legislature that all first-time DWI offenders be required to use an ignition interlock device on their vehicle, which would prevent a car from starting if the driver has any detectable amount of alcohol in their system. Under Texas law, it is the discretion of the judges whether the ignition interlock device is used for DWI offenders.

Texas prohibits checkpoints based on the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, however the Corpus Christi Police Department claims to have found a loophole. Public Information Officer for the Department, Julie Garcia, claims that the department does conduct what they call “driver’s license checkpoints” routinely. If during this driver’s license checkpoint a driver is suspected to be impaired, the officer can conduct field sobriety tests, which if failed, the driver “can and will be arrested.”

Driver’s license checkpoints are also used in Lubbock County, according to Assistant District Attorney Tom Brummett, who said that these checkpoints are an effective way to legally target DWI drivers. He said, “Even though we can’t use DWI or sobriety checkpoints, the law does allow us to use driver’s license checkpoints, vehicle safety checkpoints.”

DWI Task Force Arrests Bartender for Over-serving, Texas

A DWI taskforce in Montgomery County, Texas called the “Bars and Cars” task force has arrested a bartender for over-serving a patron. The DWI task force does not simply focus on drivers who are already drunk and on the road, but on all aspects that lead to drunk driving, including the places where many DWI stories begin–at bars.

In The Woodlands, Texas, undercover officers from the Conroe Police Department visited Baker Street Pub and began observing bartender Chelsea Wilburn and an intoxicated customer. Warren Diepraam, from the Montgomery County DA’s Office, said, “This person was obviously intoxicated, shouting racial epithets. He had slurred speech, very droopy eyes, fumbling around.”

Willburn is being charged with the sale of alcohol to an intoxicated person which is a Class A misdemeanor. If convicted, Willburn may face up to a year in jail and a fine up to $4,000.

The Baker Street Pub has also been cited for serving alcohol to an intoxicated person, according to an agent with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. The report is in review to determine potential administrative penalties.

The “Bars and Cars” DWI task force is working with bars and educating bartenders and servers about the laws regarding serving already intoxicated patrons. This effort came after a string of fatal drunk driving accidents in the Montgomery County area over the summer.

Texas Program Uses Sober Court to Reform DWI Offenders

A new program aimed to treat hardcore drunk driving offenders makes an attempt to prevent repeat offenses by simply keeping them sober.Harris County, Texas is intensifying the SOBER Court program, and is funding overtime for 14 deputies to participate using seized assets from criminals. The program involves random, surprise home inspections, in which a deputy will perform breath tests on defendants and inspect for non-compliance with the program, which requires no possession of alcohol or illegal drugs. Offenders must also meet with a DWI judge twice a month and use an alcohol-monitoring device 3-4 times a day from work, home, or their vehicle.

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia addressed new graduates of the SOBER Court program, he said, “I will do anything in my power to get Harris County, Texas off the top of the list of DWI-related traffic fatalities in the country.”

In 2009, Harris County had the highest rate of alcohol-related traffic deaths in the country among the nation’s most populous counties.

“We don’t want you before these judges being tried for involuntary manslaughter,” Garcia said. “If you think my deputies or any of these judges are playing, try us. We’ll hold jail space for those of you not listening. We’re going to be extremely serious about your success.”