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Ramjattansingh v. State

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

September 17, 2019


          On Appeal from the County Criminal Court at Law No. 8 Harris County, Texas Trial Court Case No. 2019635

          Panel consists of Justices Keyes, Higley, and Landau.



         Jason Ramjattansingh appeals his conviction for Class A misdemeanor driving while intoxicated. See Tex. Penal Code § 49.04. This Court first rendered a judgment of acquittal on the charge and remanded for a new trial on the lesser- included Class B misdemeanor offense.[1] The State appealed, and the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed.[2] The case is now on remand for consideration of Ramjattansingh's issues not reached in the Court's first opinion, whether the trial court erred by (1) denying his requests for jury instructions on unlawful arrests and custodial interrogation; (2) refusing to allow his counsel to present jury argument on the unlawfulness of the arrest; and (3) admitting an audio recording of the call for emergency assistance from a tow truck driver who observed Ramjattansingh driving erratically the night of his arrest.

         We affirm.


         A. The offense

         In spring 2015, at 9:32 p.m., tow truck driver Joshua Wilson dialed 911 to report that he was following a "drunk driver" who was "all over the road" and had almost caused multiple accidents. Wilson described the vehicle to the 911 operator and provided the license plate number. Not long after Wilson made the call, he and the driver he was following, Jason Ramjattansingh, pulled off the road into a public parking lot. Wilson relayed their location over the phone and agreed to stay in the parking lot with his tow truck's lights flashing until the police arrived.

         Officer S. Delacruz of the Houston Police Department responded. Both Wilson and Ramjattansingh were standing outside Ramjattansingh's car when Officer Delacruz arrived. Officer Delacruz spoke first with Wilson, who told him that Ramjattansingh had been driving erratically and nearly hit other vehicles. Officer Delacruz noticed that Ramjattansingh was "swaying," "couldn't stand straight," and seemed intoxicated. Officer Delacruz handcuffed Ramjattansingh and secured him in the patrol car at 9:48 p.m. as he awaited the arrival of a DWI unit.

         Officer A. Beaudion arrived around 10:05 p.m. to conduct the DWI investigation. She took Ramjattansingh out of Officer Delacruz's patrol car and removed his handcuffs. Ramjattansingh smelled of alcohol, could not balance himself, and had slurred speech. He admitted to Officer Beaudion that he had "some shots of alcohol" and that he had started drinking around 5:00 p.m.

         As part of her investigation, Officer Beaudion administered three field sobriety tests-the horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test, the one-leg stand test, and the walk-and-turn test. Ramjattansingh could not complete the HGN test because he could not hold his head still. And he showed signs of intoxication during the other two tests-three of four clues on the one-leg stand test and six of eight clues on the walk-and-turn test. By 10:40 p.m., Officer Beaudion had concluded that Ramjattansingh was "very intoxicated." She gave him his statutory warning that he was under arrest, arrested him, and took him to HPD's intoxication center. There, at around 11:30 p.m., Ramjattansingh gave two breath samples, the results of which showed alcohol concentrations of .235 and .220 per 210 liters of breath.

         B. The trial

         The State charged Ramjattansingh with driving while intoxicated and, in addition, alleged that his breath showed an alcohol concentration of at least .15 "at the time of the analysis and at or near the time of the commission of the offense," thereby elevating the offense from a Class B to a Class A misdemeanor. See Tex. Penal Code § 49.04(b), (d). Ramjattansingh's plea of "not guilty" led to a jury trial.

         Ramjattansingh filed a written motion to suppress "all evidence seized as a result of [his] arrest . . . and the search of [his] person, papers, and effects, as well as all statements, either written or oral, made after arrest." The motion alleged that the "arrest and search of [Ramjattansingh] and the seizure of items, papers and effects from [Ramjattansingh] was affected without valid warrant, or probable cause, or reasonable suspicion, in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments" of the United States Constitution.

         At argument on the suppression motion, Ramjattansingh urged that the State's evidence stemmed from an illegal detention by the tow truck driver, Wilson, and then an illegal arrest by Officer Delacruz. Wilson unlawfully detained him until the police arrived, and Officer Delacruz unlawfully arrested him without probable cause by handcuffing him and placing him in the patrol car. Or, Ramjattansingh argued in the alternative, if Officer Delacruz was only detaining him, his detention became an arrest when Officer Delacruz towed Ramjattansingh's car, which Ramjattansingh alleged occurred before Officer Beaudion arrived and conducted the DWI investigation.

         The trial court denied the motion and later issued these relevant findings of fact and conclusions of law:


         g. Officer Delacruz spoke to the tow truck driver [Wilson] [who] stopped [Ramjattansingh] . . . and explained to Officer Delacruz that:

(i) he had been following [Ramjattansingh] when they were driving;
(ii) [Ramjattansingh] was almost hitting vehicles;
(iii) [Wilson] had to pull [Ramjattansingh] off the road; and
(iv) after they stopped, [Wilson] approached [Ramjattansingh] and observed signs that suggested [Ramjattansingh] was intoxicated.

         h. Officer Delacruz observed that [Ramjattansingh] was standing outside his vehicle, could not stand still, and was swaying.

         i. Officer Delacruz determined, based on a totality of the circumstances, that [Ramjattansingh] could not safely operate a motor vehicle.

         j. Because a Houston Police Department officer that was specially trained in DWI investigations was already on the way, Officer Delacruz did not perform further investigation but, instead, handcuffed [Ramjattansingh] and detained him in Officer Delacruz's patrol car until the DWI officer arrived.

         k. Among other things, Officer Delacruz detained [Ramjattansingh] in his patrol car for [Ramjattansingh's] own safety-to keep [Ramjattansingh] from falling down.


         18. A private citizen may arrest an individual that breaches the peace in his presence. Tex. Code Crim. Proc. art. 14.01(a) [(providing that "peace officer or any other person, may, without a warrant, arrest an offender when the offense is committed in his presence or within his view, if the offense is . . . an offense against the public peace")].

         24. Here, [Wilson] had probable cause to believe that [Ramjattansingh] committed the offense of reckless driving, in a manner constituting the breach of the peace, in his presence and view.

         25.[Wilson] was authorized to arrest [Ramjattansingh] for reckless driving.

         27. Notwithstanding probable cause to arrest [Ramjattansingh] for reckless driving, the first responding officer, Delacruz, had reasonable suspicion to detain [Ramjattansingh] for suspicion of reckless driving and driving while intoxicated-based on the 911 call and dispatch information, his conversations with the tow truck driver, and his personal observations of the defendant, coupled with his own training and experience-until the already-dispatched DWI investigation officer arrived and conducted her investigation. . . .

         28. Officer Delacruz's act of handcuffing [Ramjattansingh] and placing [Ramjattansingh] in the back seat of his patrol car to await Officer Beaudion did not elevate the detention to an arrest. . . .

         29. Reasonable suspicion to justify [Ramjattansingh's] detention did not dissipate at any time before probable cause existed to support his arrest.

         30. [Ramjattansingh's] detention by Officer Delacruz, and later arrest by Officer Beaudion, was reasonable and, thus, did not violate the Fourth Amendment or its counterpart.

         During the State's case, Officers Delacruz and Beaudion testified about the DWI investigation and the circumstances of the arrest. Officer Delacruz contradicted himself about towing Ramjattansingh's car. Officer Delacruz first testified that the time recorded on the HPD form towing slip-10:00 p.m.-was the time he began filling out paperwork, not when Ramjattansingh's car was towed. Officer Delacruz testified on cross-examination, however, that the car was towed at 10:00 p.m., a time which he acknowledged was before Officer Beaudion arrived and before he could authorize a tow under HPD's policy for vehicle tows incident to arrest. Officer Beaudion testified that Ramjattansingh's car was in the parking lot when she arrived.

         The State also presented testimony from M. Skeleton, an HPD employee who administered Ramjattansingh's breath test, and C. Bishop, a technical supervisor for the Texas Department of Public Safety Breath Alcohol Testing Program. Bishop opined that an average person would have to drink about 11 shots to produce a result of .220 on a breath test and that someone with that alcohol concentration would have lost the normal use of his physical and mental faculties. She conceded, however, that she could not say what Ramjattansingh's alcohol concentration was when he was driving and that any attempt to do so would be speculative. She testified that retrograde extrapolation-extrapolating backward in time from breath test results to estimate an alcohol concentration at an earlier point-is possible. But the facts that must be known to make such an extrapolation-the time of the traffic stop, the time of the breath test and its results, the driver's last meal, what he ate, and the time of his last alcoholic drink-were unknown.

         Bishop also conceded that, given the limited facts available and how the body processes alcohol, it was possible that Ramjattansingh's alcohol concentration was below the legal limit of .08 when he was driving. For example, if he quickly drank several alcoholic beverages before getting behind the wheel, his alcohol concentration could have been below the legal limit ...

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