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State v. Couch

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

August 29, 2019

The State of Texas, Appellant
v.
John Phillip Couch, II, Appellee

          FROM THE 207TH DISTRICT COURT OF COMAL COUNTY NO. CR2013-444, THE HONORABLE R. BRUCE BOYER, JUDGE PRESIDING

          Before Chief Justice Rose, Justices Goodwin and Triana

          OPINION

          GISELA D. TRIANA, JUSTICE

         This 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 suppress.

         BACKGROUND[1]

         At 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.

         As the 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."

         While 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."

         Kral 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 marijuana.

         Based 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.

         Upon 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.[2] 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.

         The 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.

         APPLICABLE LAW

         The 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)).

         "The 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).

         "In 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.

         Relevant 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 ...


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