Texas Court of Appeals Rules: Police DWI Investigation Went too Far

The Texas Court of Appeals for the 7th District recently issued a case that overturned a DWI conviction. The case, Byram v. State, looked at the limits of police investigating people under the community caretaker provisions of Texas law.

This case began in 2013 when a police officer found himself parked next to a driver at a red light. At trial, the police officer testified that he was on preventative patrol in the downtown area he was assigned to that day. While parked at the stop light, the patrol officer’s window was rolled partly down, and the appellant’s passenger side window was rolled all the way down.

The police officer testified that he was about ten feet away from the appellant’s vehicle, yet he could smell the an odor of alcohol coming from the car. Also in the appellant’s car was a passenger, that according to the police officer, was hunched over and non responsive. The police officer yelled at the appellant driving the vehicle, but the appellant ignored the officer and drove off.

Community Caretaker Role of Police

It was at this point when the police officer followed, pulled over, and investigated the driver on suspicion of DWI. The driver did not break any laws, was driving like he should have, yet the police officer justified his actions by saying that he was worried about the passenger who was not responsive to the police officer’s shouts.

The community caretaker provision of Texas law is an exception to the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Fourth Amendment protects all of us from unreasonable searches and seizures by the police unless the police have a warrant issued from a judge. This is one of many exceptions, and under Texas law it is only supposed to be narrowly applied in rare circumstances.

In a nutshell, the community caretaker exception to the Fourth Amendment allows a police officer to enter a building, conduct a search, or seize someone when that person is in distress and would benefit from the police’s help. But the circumstances under which a police officer can use this exception are specific. A police officer can only use the exception after weighing the following four factors:

  • The nature of the circumstances of the person’s distress;
  • The location of the person;
  • Whether the person is alone or already has access to help;
  • Whether the person is presenting a danger to himself or others.

Only after these four factor are met might a police officer be justified in investigating a situation to help out the community and thwart the provisions of the Fourth Amendment.

Court Overturns Conviction

In this case the court overturned the arrest and conviction of the man because the police were not justified in pulling him over to help out his passenger. With the facts that were proven in this case, the police were simply not justified in pulling a driver over just because the passenger was hunched over and not responding to the police’s shouts.

Every DWI Case Turns on the Facts

If the person in this case had not fought these charges, the police and prosecutor may have gotten away with a conviction that should not have been allowed. It is a lesson on how important it is to fight any DWI charges that you may be facing. At the Wilder DWI Defense Firm we defend and fight DWI charges for every case we take on. If you have been charged with DWI in the Dallas area, contact us.