Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin
THE 207TH DISTRICT COURT OF COMAL COUNTY NO. CR2013-444, THE
HONORABLE R. BRUCE BOYER, JUDGE PRESIDING
Chief Justice Rose, Justices Goodwin and Triana
D. TRIANA, JUSTICE
cause is before us on remand from the Texas Court of Criminal
Appeals. On original submission, this Court considered
whether the District Court abused its discretion in granting
the motion to suppress of appellee John Phillip Couch, II,
who argued that the State had violated his Fourth Amendment
rights by drawing his blood without a search warrant. This
Court concluded that the warrantless blood draw was justified
by exigent circumstances and reversed the District
Court's order for that reason. See State v.
Couch, No. 03-16-00727-CR, 2018 Tex.App. LEXIS 8855, at
*17-19 (Tex. App.-Austin Oct. 31, 2018) (mem. op., not
designated for publication). After this Court issued its
opinion and judgment, the Court of Criminal Appeals issued an
opinion that addressed the deference a reviewing court owes
to a trial court's findings of fact and conclusions of
law in cases involving claims of exigent circumstances.
See State v. Garcia, 569 S.W.3d 142, 148-52 (Tex.
Crim. App. 2018). Because this Court did not have the benefit
of Garcia when it issued its previous opinion, the
Court of Criminal Appeals remanded this cause to us for
reconsideration. For the following reasons, we affirm the
District Court's order granting Couch's motion to
approximately 7:53 p.m. on February 25, 2012, Texas
Department of Public Safety Trooper David Kral was notified
of a vehicle collision in Comal County, on FM 306 near Canyon
Park Road. Kral arrived at the scene approximately 30 minutes
later, at 8:24 p.m. Upon arrival, Kral saw that a Corvette
and a Chevy pickup truck had collided in the roadway and were
blocking traffic. Emergency personnel and law-enforcement
officers were already at the scene. Kral spoke with a
sheriff's deputy who informed him that eyewitnesses had
observed the driver of the Corvette, later identified as
Couch, "driving recklessly within the parking lot"
of a convenience store and "attempting to get onto [FM]
306." The deputy added that as the Corvette was exiting
the parking lot, it "went into the wrong lane and went
head on with another vehicle." There were two
individuals in the Chevy pickup at the time of the collision,
one of whom was hospitalized with a broken thumb.
lead investigator at the scene, Kral was responsible for
"[g]athering all the facts as far as where the vehicles
were on the roadway," "getting . . . certain
documents from the crash," "identifying the other
occupants of the crash," "getting witness
statements," and speaking with "the other deputies
that were there on scene." Kral was also responsible for
completing a written report of the collision. The role of the
other officers was to "assist with the overall crash
scene" by "getting witness statements,"
"identifying drivers," "getting facts,"
and "securing the scene, making sure that-that nobody
else crashes into these cars while they're just sitting
in the middle of the road."
the other officers were completing those tasks, Kral spoke
with Couch. He noticed that Couch "had an abrasion
across [the] left part of his head, and he was also
complaining of his chest." As a precautionary measure,
Kral "brought him over to Canyon Lake EMS
personnel," who informed Kral that they had already
"checked [Couch] over" and released him because he
"had refused any further treatment."
then brought Couch to his patrol car and asked him questions
concerning the collision. During the interview, Kral smelled
alcohol on Couch's breath. Kral suspected that Couch was
intoxicated and proceeded to administer field sobriety tests.
Kral estimated that he began conducting the tests
approximately 30 minutes after his arrival at the scene and
that the tests took approximately 20 to 30 minutes to
complete. After conducting the field sobriety tests, Kral
asked Couch "if he had anything else in his system or if
there's anything else in the car." Couch admitted
that there "might" be marijuana in his vehicle,
although he denied smoking any marijuana that day. Couch then
took a pill bottle out of his pocket that contained
on the information that he had gathered during his
investigation, Kral arrested Couch for driving while
intoxicated and possession of marijuana. Before leaving the
scene of the collision, Kral spoke with the other officers to
inform them of Couch's arrest, to "check the
status" of the occupants in the other vehicle, and to
ensure that the clean-up of the collision was under control.
Kral then transported Couch to a hospital in downtown New
Braunfels, a drive that took approximately 45 minutes.
arrival at the hospital, Kral began drafting a search warrant
to draw Couch's blood, a process that took approximately
30 minutes to complete. After attempting unsuccessfully to
contact a judge who could sign the warrant, Kral decided to
forgo the search-warrant process and obtain a sample of
Couch's blood without a warrant under the authority of
the mandatory-blood-draw statute. Kral explained, "I had
every intention [of] getting the warrant. But at some point,
like I said, that little light went off in the back of my
mind saying there's no reason for me to have to delay
this." When asked if he believed that he "would
have had time to get a search warrant and adequately get an
accurate and reliable blood analysis done on the
defendant," Kral answered, "No." Kral obtained
a sample of Couch's blood without a warrant at
approximately 10:50 p.m., approximately three hours after he
had been dispatched to the collision.
District Court granted Couch's motion to suppress and
later made findings of fact and conclusions of law, including
that "the overall circumstances of the incident do not
demonstrate exigent circumstances so compelling that a
warrantless, non-consensual blood draw was objectively
reasonable." This appeal by the State followed.
Fourth Amendment provides in relevant part that "[t]he
right of the people to be secure in their persons . . .
against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be
violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable
cause." See U.S. Const. amend. IV. A blood draw
is considered a search for Fourth Amendment purposes. See
Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757, 767 (1966).
"A warrantless search is per se unreasonable under the
Fourth Amendment unless it falls within a recognized
exception to the warrant requirement." Garcia,
569 S.W.3d at 148 (citing Missouri v. McNeely, 569
U.S. 141, 148 (2013)). "When the defendant files a
motion to suppress evidence on Fourth-Amendment grounds, he
has the initial burden of proving that a warrantless search
occurred; if he succeeds, the burden shifts to the State to
prove that a warrant-requirement exception applies."
Id. (citing 43 George E. Dix & John M.
Schmolesky, Texas Practice-Criminal Practice and
Procedure § 18:20 (3d ed. 2011)).
well-established 'exigent circumstances' exception
applies when 'the exigencies of the situation make the
needs of law enforcement so compelling that a warrantless
search is objectively reasonable under the Fourth
Amendment.'" Id. (quoting McNeely,
569 U.S. at 148-49). "Under this exception, a
law-enforcement officer may be justified in conducting a
warrantless search 'to prevent the imminent destruction
of evidence.'" Id. (quoting
McNeely, 569 U.S. at 149).
drunk-driving cases in particular, 'the natural
dissipation of alcohol in the blood may support a finding of
exigency in a specific case'-but 'it does not do so
categorically.'" Id. (quoting
McNeely, 569 U.S. at 156). "Instead, any
exigent-circumstances review should be informed by the
totality of the facts and circumstances available to the
officer and analyzed under an objective standard of
reasonableness." Id. "In those
drunk-driving investigations where police officers can
reasonably obtain a warrant before a blood sample can be
drawn without significantly undermining the efficacy of the
search, the Fourth Amendment mandates that they do so."
McNeely, 569 U.S. at 152.
factors in the exigency analysis include the officer's
knowledge of "the body's natural metabolic process
and the attendant evidence destruction over time,"
"the procedures in place for obtaining a warrant,"
"the availability of a magistrate judge," and
"the practical problems of obtaining a warrant within a
timeframe that still preserves the opportunity to obtain
reliable evidence." Id. at 164; Weems v.
State, 493 S.W.3d 574, 580 (Tex. Crim. App. 2016);
Cole v. State, 490 S.W.3d 918, 924 (Tex. Crim. App.
2016). Moreover, when the circumstances include an automobile
accident, additional considerations include "the time
required to complete the accident investigation,"
"the lack of available law enforcement personnel"
to assist in the investigation, "[t]he ...