Program aims at nabbing more drunken drivers

By Chacour Koop
Galveston County Daily News

GALVESTON, Texas (AP) — No need for gavels and long black robes — a Galveston County program aimed at busting more drunken drivers gives police permission to draw a motorist’s blood within minutes of a traffic stop via Skype-like video chats with a judge.

The so-called STRIKE Program is law enforcement’s answer to suspected boozed-up drivers who refuse alcohol testing on the side of the road.

Those involved with the initiative say it’ll make driving-while-intoxicated charges harder to defend in court — and put patrol cars back on the street quicker following arrests.

“Most officers that you meet will say DWIs aren’t worth it because all they’re going to do is come plead them out,” Clear Lake Shores Cpl. Zack Holley told the Galveston County Daily News. “It kind of gives purpose back to enforcing the DWI in our county.”

STRIKE — an acronym for Safety Through Rapid Investigation of Key Evidence — is a faster spin on a currently cumbersome process.

Typically, officers seeking blood warrants — a document that lets police take blood from a suspect refusing a Breathalyzer or field sobriety test — must file paperwork with the district attorney’s office. Next, the office calls judges, often in the middle of the night, to sign a warrant. Once an available judge is found, the officer drops the suspect off at a police department and drives to the judge’s home or office to sign the warrant and take an oath. Lastly, the officer takes the suspect from the police department to a hospital to draw blood.

That two to three hour process is pared to less than an hour under the new initiative, Galveston County Assistant District Attorney Kayla Allen said. If suspects refuse tests for alcohol along the road, the officers in the program call District Court Judge Kerry Neves to authorize a blood warrant.

Neves approves the warrant and swears in the officers on a tablet using the county’s video chat. He was awakened four times in a 24-hour period about a week ago.

“My phone goes off and it wakes me and my wife, and she’s like ‘We need to get somebody else involved in this,’” Neves, who’s the only judge in the program, said. “It’s a small price for me to pay to get up in the middle of the night and do it. It takes 10 minutes and boom — we’re done.”

Galveston County Sheriff’s Deputy Jacob Manuel said he can receive a blood warrant before a wrecker arrives to tow cars. The relatively small-scale operation rolled out last summer and included only Neves and Manuel, a deputy with a reputation for being tough on drunken drivers. It’s grown to include three more officers and program organizers say its gaining traction in more county police departments. Other judges also seem receptive, Neves said.

“I think it’s more efficient for the officers and their time being taken away from the street,” said Allen, who led the effort to start the practice. “I anticipate that every single agency will be onboard. I have not had any resistance.”

Motivation for the program came after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a law that allowed police to seize a suspect’s blood without a warrant if he had two prior drunken driving convictions. Neighboring Brazoria and Jefferson counties have a similar video chat program, and Harris County has on-call judges to sign warrants every night. Galveston County also uses on-call judges to handle refusals, but for holidays and large events only.

“I won’t say it’ll do away with no-refusals,” Manuel said. “I think we’ll have a lot more judges onboard because they can do it from home.”

The program includes two sheriff’s deputies and officers in both Clear Lake Shores and League City.

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