Only medical staff could take samples from suspects.
by Tony Plohetski / AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMANDate: 10-15-2009
Source: Austin American-Statesman
Austin police, who have increasingly collected blood evidence to bolster drunken driving cases, would be blocked from personally gathering such samples under a tentative City Council measure.
According to a draft resolution by Council Member Bill Spelman, officers would not perform such blood draws in order to “protect the health and safety of officers and suspects.”
The measure would require that such evidence be taken by technicians who receive ongoing medical training, in a public health setting and with emergency services immediately available.
Police Chief Art Acevedo has for months publicly discussed the possibility of training officers to collect such blood evidence from drunken driving suspects — a practice that several Texas law enforcement agencies have adopted.
Hospital staff or phlebotomists hired by Austin police currently collect the samples.
Spelman said he hopes the proposal will reduce liability for the city and prevent allegations against officers.
“I think people are going to respond very differently to someone who looks more like a doctor than someone who looks like a police officer,” Spelman said. “I think it is just asking for a lot of complaints and a lot of lawsuits.”
Spelman said Wednesday morning that he had hoped to put the item on the Oct. 22 council agenda. He met with Acevedo later in the day, after which Spelman said he would wait until the end of the week before making a final decision on whether he would move forward and gather co-sponsors.
Mayor Lee Leffingwell said he also is opposed to police officers acting as phlebotomists.
“I think it is a highly invasive procedure, and I think there are all kinds of risks associated with it,” Leffingwell said.
The measure would represent a compromise between Spelman and representatives of several civil libertarian groups, who had wanted Spelman to propose a measure that also would stop so-called no refusal operations. During those initiatives, which are typically conducted on holidays, police seek the blood of suspects who refuse to provide breath samples.
Spelman said he remains concerned about such operations but that he wanted to further consider the issue before presenting a resolution.
Acevedo said state law requires police officers to use every legal method to enforce laws and that he thinks the proposal to block officers from taking blood could run afoul of that requirement.
“It is my understanding that it hasn’t been placed on an agenda for action, but if it is placed, I believe it is a moot point,” Acevedo said. “We aren’t providing phlebotomy training for our officers.”
Clay Abbott, DWI resource prosecutor for the Texas District & County Attorneys Association, said several law enforcement agencies across the state have begun training officers to collect blood samples from drunken driving suspects. He said they include Dalworthington Gardens, in the Fort Worth area, and the Williamson County sheriff’s office, which has trained several corrections officers to do so.
“To find that a police officer is the only individual that is disqualified from gathering evidence from a criminal suspect is insane,” Abbott said. “In every other investigation, we expect and require officers to gather evidence from the suspects they arrest.”
Austin police in recent years have had the blood drawn of certain drunken driving suspects, including those involved in collisions that result in serious injuries or death.
Civil libertarians have questioned the legality of the practice and said that they think the procedures are too invasive and not necessary to build cases.
This year, leaders of the city’s two major hospital networks told Austin police they were concerned about collecting blood evidence of suspects in criminal investigations, but officials said Wednesday that they have since reached an agreement for the staff of University Medical Center Brackenridge to do it.
Debbie Russell, president of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she and others approached City Council members about several proposals relating to blood draws. They took the issue up with Spelman a couple of weeks ago.
“Officers aren’t medical professionals,” Russell said. “It opens the door to liability.”
Sgt. Wayne Vincent, president of the Austin Police Association, said he isn’t necessarily concerned about the proposal. However, he said the city should give the department full-time phlebotomists positions if council members vote to support the measure.
“If you are going to deny police officers from doing this, then give us the resources to make sure it gets done,” he said.