If you are arrested for a DWI or drunk driving in Houston, Texas, the law enforcement officers who stop you and search you prior to your arrest must comply with the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.
Under the Fourth Amendment, you have protections against unreasonable search and seizure, and a violation of your Fourth Amendment rights can be a powerful defense strategy if the law enforcement officer conducted an unlawful search. For anyone facing DWI charges, it is important to learn more about your Fourth Amendment rights and to speak with a Houston DWI defense attorney about using a constitutional violation as a defense strategy in your case.
What is a Search in a Texas DWI Case?
While you might think of the term “search” as one that refers to literally searching your pockets or your vehicle for evidence of alcohol consumption—and that type of search may occur in a DWI case—the term also has other significant implications when a person is stopped on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. As you may know, many law enforcement officials will use a breathalyzer in order to gauge a driver’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC). In so doing, they are taking a breath sample from the driver and, in effect, conducting a “search” of that person. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has long held that breath tests constitute “searches” under the Fourth Amendment.
In addition to breathalyzer tests, other “searches” that can occur in the context of a DWI stop, in addition to the search of the motorist’s vehicle or a search of the motorist’s bag or pockets, for example, the term “search” also applies to any urine or blood tests that are conducted to determine a motorist’s level of intoxication.
Stop, Search, and Arrest for Driving While Intoxicated in Texas
To explain more about how your Fourth Amendment rights work in a DWI or drunk driving arrest, it is important to understand the types of offenses in Texas that can result in an arrest in the first place.
When it comes to driving while intoxicated, or DWI charges under the Texas Penal Code, you can be arrested for and charged this offense if you are “intoxicated while operating a motor vehicle in a public place.” For a first-offense conviction, you can face up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,000. The penalties can increase for subsequent convictions, as well as in cases where aggravating factors are present, such as having an open container of alcohol in the vehicle or having a blood alcohol concentration of 0.15 or higher. Even in these situations where aggravating or additional factors are present, you are likely to be facing misdemeanor charges. In some subsequent offenses, or in situations where somebody suffers serious or fatal injuries, additional offenses like “intoxication assault” and “intoxication manslaughter” can be charged.
Yet in order to stop you and search you—remember that a search can include taking a breath sample to determine your BAC—the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires the law enforcement officer to have probable cause.
Probable Cause Required for a Search
To arrest you for any of the above DWI offenses based on a “search,” the law enforcement officer must have probable cause under the Fourth Amendment. There is no set definition of probable cause. Instead, the U.S. Supreme Court has underscored that the concept is somewhat flexible and is based on the totality of the circumstances in a specific situation, and whether the law enforcement officer acted reasonably.
If you believe your Fourth Amendment rights were violated, any evidence that came from the unlawful search—including evidence of your BAC—may be suppressed.