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Acevedo defends blood draws at town hall meeting

Tuesday, March 31, 2009 by Steven Pickering

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo and Council Member Mike Martinez took part in a town hall-style meeting at City Hall Monday evening to discuss APD’s ongoing effort to obtain blood samples from DWI suspects. The audience filled the chamber and spilled out into the lobby. While most of the members of the crowd were there to question the policy or argue against it, the chief did find some support from a representative of Mothers Against Drunk Driving on the panel and another, less likely source.

 

“I give the chief credit for being here tonight,” said Debbie Russell of the ACLU, who has been a prominent critic of the blood-draw program. “Stan Knee would have never been here.”

 

Council Member Martinez, who is skeptical of the blood-draw program, also complimented Chief Acevedo for the work he has done since becoming Austin’s police chief in the summer of 2007. “I am one of Chief Acevedo’s biggest supporters. I think he has done a very good job with what he was faced with,” Martinez said, specifically citing the chief’s success in reducing racial tensions within the community. “When was the last time you saw a brown or black person shot on the street by a cop? It was before he got here. That is substantially different than what it used to be.” That declaration generated shouts and catcalls from the audience, with Martinez briefly threatening to shut down the meeting before moderator David Kobierowski and other event organizers stepped in to restore order.

 

On the issue of mandatory blood draws, Chief Acevedo pointed out that the practice had been deemed acceptable by the courts as long as officers secured search warrants from a judge. But since the chief began regularly requesting blood search warrants for DWI suspects, administrators at the city’s two major hospitals and at the Travis County Jail have instructed their nurses to stop performing the procedure for the department. All three institutions have cited the need to have their staff devoted to patient care, not collecting evidence for criminal prosecutions. Now, the chief is pushing to have some APD officers trained as phlebotomists or seeking grant funding to hire seven civilian phlebotomists to take samples from suspects.

 

“I think there are too many questions,” Council Member Martinez said, “and until those questions get answered, I don’t believe the city of Austin should be engaged in taking blood samples and collecting and storing them.” Those questions, he said, included the city’s liability for having its employees draw blood as well as the cost of taking and storing the samples.

 

A bill passed by the Texas Senate would broaden officers’ ability to take blood from suspects even without a judge’s approval. The legislation proposed by Republican Sen. Bob Duell would allow officers to take blood samples from drivers involved in crashes where one person is injured or if the person is suspected of driving drunk with a child in the car.  “I eventually believe it’s going to go back through the court system if legislation like this is adopted,” Martinez said. “As a policy maker, this is not something that I’m prepared to support at this point.”

 

But while Martinez said several times during the evening he would not support blood draws based on current information, he stopped short of pledging to vote on a resolution opposing them. The organizers of the meeting, Texans for Accountable Government, are seeking to draft a resolution for the Council’s consideration this summer that would call for blocking officers from drawing blood samples from DWI suspects.

 

Martinez warned that the issue would likely be decided in a venue other than City Hall. “Your state legislators and federal lawmakers continue to enact laws that affect the local level,” he said. “The state Senate passed a bill today to do DWI checkpoints. These are not things that are going to go away, even if 98 percent of Austin votes on a ballot that you don’t want it, that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.” Most states in the U.S. allow sobriety checkpoints, but Texas is one of the few that does not. That would change under a measure passed out of the Senate on Monday. SB 261 by State Senator John Corona, R-Dallas, now goes to the Texas House for consideration

 

Although sobriety checkpoints and non-consent blood draws provoke strong public opinion, Chief Acevedo said he would continue to seek legal ways to remove drunk drivers from the streets. “If tomorrow, the U.S. Supreme Court told me I couldn’t do something…guess what we’re going to do? We’re going to stop doing it,” he said. “If the legislature tells us we can’t do something, we’re going to obey the law.”

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