Motorists arrested on suspicion of drunken driving this weekend will encounter a law enforcement strategy that is new to Clark County.
If a suspected drunken driver refuses to take a breath test, law enforcement officers will automatically seek a search warrant allowing them to take the driver’s blood sample as evidence.
The strategy is called a “no refusal weekend,” and it’s being implemented starting today in conjunction with enhanced patrols through Sunday, according to the Washington State Patrol.
“This is just another tool in our toolbox to help us with getting impaired drivers prosecuted properly and gathering other pieces of evidence that we can use in our investigation,” WSP Trooper Will Finn said at a press conference Wednesday. “It’s another form of evidence to help us prosecute individuals who are out there putting dangerous behavior out on our roadways and putting other motorists in danger for the choices they’re making by driving impaired.”
Normally, when a driver is suspected of being impaired in Washington, an officer pulls them over and conducts a series of tests — including a field sobriety test — before taking them to a secure area to provide a breath sample.
If the driver refuses to provide a breath test, the officer has the option to apply for a search warrant or proceed without it.
This weekend, the application is required.
Officers will fill out an application for a search warrant, including a statement of probable cause, and contact an on-call judge, who will either approve or deny it over the phone.
In most cases, the application is approved after a roughly 30-minute process, Finn said.
“We know that we’re going to be busy, and we’ve passed that along to them that we’re doing this emphasis, and they’re all on board with it,” Finn said of local courts. “They’ll answer the phone.”
Under the warrant, the suspected drunken driver would be taken to a medical facility for the blood draw. Most people comply at that point, and when they don’t, a second officer and hospital staff may assist with retrieving the sample, Finn said.
“We hold them down, get what’s legally ours at that point and then release them,” Finn said.
The process is typically used when intoxicants other than alcohol are suspected, Finn said. But it can also be used when a driver refuses to provide a breath test.
Those who apply for a Washington driver’s license give implied consent to a breath test when impairment is suspected, according to state law. Refusing a breath test triggers a loss of driving privileges for one year and can be used as evidence in court cases.
But officers don’t always seek a search warrant for a blood draw, such as when there’s a need to respond to a separate emergency at the time or when a driver is combative without backup nearby, Finn said.
“It also comes down to workflow, as well,” Finn said. “Any time an officer stops a vehicle, you’re taking that officer off the road from other dangerous behavior that’s happening out there on the roadway.”
For the sake of an eventual court case, however, authorities prefer to have results of a breath test or blood draw on hand.
“We’re not helping out our partners over at the (Clark County) Prosecutor’s Office by not giving them all the evidence that’s possible in the case of the investigation,” Finn said.
Legal footing sound
Unless agencies engage in additional tactics, such as handpicking judges who may be more willing to grant warrants, the patrols will likely have secure legal footing, Vancouver defense attorney Thomas Phelan said.
“I’m not sure there’s anything illegal about choosing one weekend over another,” Phelan said. “It’s about if they follow the proper procedure.”
While the “no refusal” tactic is a first for Clark County, it has been deployed multiple times in Spokane County as well as parts of Idaho.
Simpler steps can be taken ahead of time by drivers, including arranging rideshares and designated drivers.
“If you know that you’re going to be drinking or indulging in other activities that would impair your ability to operate that motor vehicle down the road, just plan ahead,” Finn said. “Please be safe. Keep the rest of us safe that are out there on the road.”