Suspected drunk drivers stopped by the State Patrol’s DUI task force or Douglas County sheriff’s deputies may be forced to give up their blood if they decline a breath test.
“If we have someone refuse, and if we have enough probable cause, we contact a State Court judge and request a search warrant for that person’s blood,” Douglas Chief Deputy Stan Copeland said.
So far, those are only two agencies in metro Atlanta that routinely seek search warrants to draw blood if a suspect refuses the breathalyzer, but Atlanta Police Department Maj. Lane Hagin said APD may soon take up the practice.
Officials say more suspects are refusing tests, and the blood test warrants give officers another option.
“DUI is a dangerous thing. And our levels of refusals were increasing, and with a refusal it’s hard to convict them,” said Sgt.Jeff Puckett, who runs the State Patrol’s DUI Nighhawks. The unit a few months ago started using the tactic in Fulton County, where a magistrate is available 24/7 to handle warrant requests.
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Copeland said blood evidence strengthens DUI cases significantly.
In the next week, an estimated 3.2 million motorists will be on on Georgia roads, according to AAA.
With more people on the streets and highways, going to holiday parties and family gatherings, the chances of encountering an impaired driver increases, said Harris Blackwood, director of the Governor’s Office for Highway Safety. On New Year’s Eve, for example, the later it gets the likelihood increases that someone behind the wheel has had a drink. At midnight it’s close to 60 percent, Blackwood said.
Many DUI defense attorneys tell clients and prospective clients to decline field sobriety tests and breathalyzer tests if they have been drinking because that would give prosecutors more evidence. Some say tests are unreliable, either because of faulty equipment or poor application.
Under Georgia law, a suspect can decline a field sobriety test and a blood, breath or urine test for alcohol. But most likely the suspect will be arrested based on other evidence -- smell of alcohol, fumbles taking out a license, bloodshot eyes, slurred speech. Refusing tests could lead to the driver’s license being taken for up to a year.
Blood tests are typically taken at jail. The sample is sent to the State Crime Lab for analysis with the expectation that the findings will be used as evidence, in addition to the officer’s testimony and video.
Cory Yager, whose law firm specializes in DUI defense, said if a driver has not been drinking and is “in good health maybe you should do them [breathalyzer tests] because that’s going to prevent them from going to jail.
“The rub in the state of Georgia is the way the law is written it almost invites people to play Russian roulette,” Yager said. “You know you’re OK if you drank one [alcoholic beverage] but what if you drank two?... For a person who isn’t sure, the best thing to do is decline all of their tests.”
DUI fatalities and arrests in Georgia have trended down in recent years.
There have been more than 7,200 alcohol-related crashes and 13o fatalities in the state so far this year, according to Department of Transportation data. In 2010, more than 8,100 alcohol-related accidents left 187 people dead.
So far this year, troopers have made 11,375 DUI arrests statewide while last year there were 14,944.
In one case where blood test warrants were used, State Trooper M.T. Land pulled over a gray Hyundai Elantra that wasn’t staying in its lane on Roswell Road at 12:30 a.m.
The 26-year-old driver mumbled and slurred as he told Land he’d only had three beers and wasn’t drunk. But he had urinated on himself and did poorly on the field sobriety test before refusing to take a “preliminary breath test,” according to Land’s report.
Land said he still had enough to arrest him on a DUI charge, which could mean 12 months in jail, a $1,000 fine, community service and mandatory alcohol treatment if convicted. And once at the Fulton County Jail, Land got a search warrant for his blood -- which revealed a blood alcohol content of .325.
That finding would buttress his testimony and the video recording.
“It’s hard to convey [in court testimony] everything we see, hear and smell,” Land said. “You see their droopy eyelids and blood-shot eyes, the inability to be cognizant of their surroundings... They [drunk drivers] can’t tell you where they live or where they just came from.”
The blood test results provide “real evidence,” Copeland said. “Blood evidence is .. better than a breathalyzer.”