W. Clay Abbott
As I begin the fourth year of my employment as TDCAA’s DWI Resource Prosecutor (funded by the Texas Department of Transportation), I would like to update everyone on what we’ve accomplished so far. During the last three years, we have held 45 regional DWI programs in every part of the state, provided the Investigation & Prosecution of DWI manual to more than 3,000 prosecutors and police officers, and distributed the Intoxication Manslaughter publication to every Texas prosecutor. The good news is we are not finished.
With support from the Texas Department of Transportation, Anheuser-Busch Companies, and Texas District and County Attorneys Foundation, TDCAA will present a free, live, satellite-broadcast seminar to more than 30 Texas cities on Friday, March 7, 2008. This program is called the Guarding Texas Roadways DWI Summit. It will be filmed in the Anheuser-Busch studios in St. Louis and broadcast live to more than 30 distributorship training facilities simultaneously all across the state. This training will be the first of its kind in the nation.
It is a free session and will be certified for four hours of MCLE/ TCLEOSE credit. The training includes four topics: 1) investigating collision scenes; 2) preparing officers for trial and testimony; 3) standardized field sobriety testing; and 4) gathering blood evidence. The presenters will be me; Richard Alpert, Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Fort Worth; Warren Diepraam, Assistant District Attorney in Houston; and Maureen McCormick, Assistant District Attorney in Nassau County, New York. It is unprecedented to bring this caliber of speakers to so many cities in our state. Even with the road miles I have logged the last three years, I can average only about 15 cities annually.
I am also very pleased that the programs will not have that “let’s put our feet up and watch the show” feel. On the contrary, it will be very interactive! On December 4, most of our local host offices sent a faculty member to Galveston to learn how to work as local faculty at the DWI Summit. Each segment will include discussions of local issues, and each local host will answer what questions he can or forward them to the speakers in St. Louis. I am really excited that this program will be the best of both worlds: It will be technically polished, thanks to the skills of the fine folks at Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis; it will be rich in content because of the outstanding state and national traffic offense prosecutors who are presenting; and it will promote practical local solutions and networking by putting a local prosecutor in charge of each location.
Each attendee will also receive TDCAA’s DWI Investigation and Prosecution, Intoxication Manslaughter, and Traffic Stops books.
But because this program is an unprecedented endeavor on our part, we need your help to get the word out. Vocal support and promotion from you, our members, is essential to this new effort. Early in the new year online registration and written promotional and registration materials will be available; please call your law enforcement agencies to prod them into signing up. We also need your prosecutors and investigators there, so don’t hesitate to hop online and submit your registration.
After our March 7th DWI Summit, TDCAA will begin setting up local DWI training for the remainder of 2008. Watch the website, www.tdcaa.com, for information on how host a more intensive program in your jurisdiction after the March 7 satellite broadcast.
Like the programs I have done the last three years, this training is set up to train prosecutors and officers at the same time. This idea is really fairly uncommon in Texas. Many of you have heard my initial introductions to my programs: I ask my mixed audience what the biggest intoxication-related problem is in their jurisdiction. After some uncomfortable silence (and often a shot at local judges), I get the answers I expect: Officers think the problem is prosecutors, while prosecutors invariably say the problem is police. We then spend the rest of the day fixing both the problems and the misconceptions.
It never ceases to amaze me how little officers know about what happens in court and why it happens. I am equally amazed how little prosecutors know about what happens on an average police patrol. (As if there is such a thing.) In addition to attending TDCAA’s excellent training sessions, there is another solution.
I had tried six or seven DWI jury trials before I went on my first ride-along with DPS. Rusty Thorton, my very wise misdemeanor chief, suggested it after what I am sure was a very loud dissertation in the office hallway on why bad police work was the cause of my latest not-guilty DWI verdict. For several weekend nights I spent time with a couple of excellent troopers on Lubbock’s highways and back roads. I had a blast and learned an enormous amount about how to present a DWI case to a jury. I discovered that the video didn’t catch everything I needed to ask about. I learned most folks who got stopped, and even many who had been drinking, drove away from the stop after the investigation. I gained an appreciation for how difficult it is to administer SFSTs 5 feet from speeding traffic to a surly suspect on a windy (the wind always blows in Lubbock), dark country road. I learned most officers have saint-like patience not to shoot the people they have to investigate. I learned from how far away you can smell the alcohol on a drunk’s breath as I held my nose in the front seat of the trooper’s cruiser.
But perhaps most importantly, I forged a relationship with the officers I would later put on the stand. And they found someone in the DA’s office they could call with questions. I owe a lot of my current knowledge to Rusty and those troopers.
Often prosecutors worry about becoming a witness in cases they may have to try. Talking with adjoining or other close jurisdictions about accompanying their officers can often solve this problem; it can often be done easily during DPS’ STEP program or high-visibility enforcement rollouts.
Also, prosecutors should familiarize themselves with officers’ workplaces by seeing the booking and breath test areas, driving around with the officer while he explains their video capabilities, sitting through a STEP roll call, and listening to how the agencies pick which places to patrol. Prosecutors will also become much better at presenting cases if they know how officers are trained. Volunteer to be the subject at an SFST update “wet lab.” If you prefer not to drink, simply observe a wet lab; it will change your perspective on the BAC readings you regularly see. In addition, meet with your technical supervisor as she does maintenance on the breath instrument. Nothing helps you present something more than actually seeing it performed.
And officers, before you get a swelled chest, you need to do a ride-along too. Officers get a very heavy dose of one part of the trial and are excluded from the rest. It is rather hard to put the importance of the officer’s direct and cross-examination into the perspective of the whole trial without ever observing a whole trial. I have often told officers who feel underappreciated by prosecutors that they really should sit through a final summation where prosecutors regularly extol the virtue of the street officer. Because “the rule” excludes all witnesses to a case, officers must observe a case in which they are not involved. (With all of the defendant’s relatives in attendance, a uniformed officer’s presence in court would be nice for prosecutors as well.)
By spending the time training and working together we create much better trial and investigation teams. At the end of my programs, I hear the same things from officers and prosecutors alike. Each are impressed with the dedication of the other. The mingling creates a sense of teamwork and reinforcement of our common goals. In the quest to make Texas roadways safer, prosecutors and officers have too few allies; it is a shame not to commiserate with the ones we do have.