reported the Austin Statesman. Travis County Attorney David Escamilla told the paper, "After our review of the evidence, including the officer's in-car video, we confirmed to APD that there was not sufficient evidence to support a DWI charge." Ward issued a statement afterward declaring "I have been respectful and patient throughout the process, knowing from the outset that I was not intoxicated. There was no reason to go forward with the case. I can only hope that my innocence is reported and discussed with the same enthusiasm as my arrest."
The incident re-raises an issue the Statesman tackled last month in a story revealing that Travis County dismisses "a higher percentage of drunken driving cases than other major Texas counties, in part because prosecutors said police filed weak cases." As indicated in the chart at left, law enforcement in Travis County - primarily Austin PD - arrest nearly twice as many people for DWI as other large Texas jurisdictions, and those cases are dismissed from 2-10 times more often than those other locales, raising the possibility that police in Travis County are systematically arresting people for DWI when there's no cause to believe they're drunk.
For years I've heard defense attorneys in Travis County complain that APD will arrest drivers merely if they've been drinking, whether or not they fail field sobriety tests or blow .08 on a breathalyzer, claims corroborated by the Statesman's findings and Ward's experience. An attorney in the May Statesman story voiced that view: "'Generally speaking, I think if you have alcohol on your breath in Austin, Texas, you are going to jail,' said Brian Roark, an Austin defense lawyer and former county prosecutor."
Wherein lies the problem. Drinking and driving, while increasingly a cultural taboo, is not in and of itself a crime. Driving with a blood alcohol content over .08 is a crime, but arresting everyone with alcohol on their breath inevitably ropes in people who've had a drink or two but are still abiding by the law. Folks like Ward may eventually have charges dismissed, but they've often still spent a night in jail, often paid thousands for an attorney, and in Ward's case, suffered needless public embarrassment.
Austin Chief Art Acevedo told the Statesman, "My No. 1 priority is telling my officers, 'Don't you worry about what happens to the court piece, your job is to get people off the road,'" which sounds to me like the department is encouraging a pattern and practice of false arrests systematically from the top down. Surely the "#1 priority" of police in such circumstances shouldn't be "to get people off the road" no matter what, but to determine first and foremost whether they've actually committed a crime.