This July, Thirteenth District Court of Appeals Justice Nora Longoria was arrested on suspicion of DWI. The McAllen police officer who stopped Longoria, and administered the field sobriety tests on the side of the road, claimed that Longoria said at the time of the arrest that he was “ruining her life and career for what he was doing,” because she “worked hard for 25 years to be where [she’s] at today.”
As it turns out, Longoria, who was elected to a six-year term on the bench in November 2012, needn’t have worried too much. Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra, who was in charge of prosecuting the appeals court judge, dismissed the charges last week, citing a lack of evidence:
“It’s just an officer’s opinion,” he said.
Guerra said he reviewed a police video of Longoria at the McAllen police station, which he said appeared favorable to her case. Though Longoria declined a Breathalyzer, police did not order a blood draw to determine alcohol content.
“I look at whether they are sitting upright, and often times video disputes claims of slurred speech,” Guerra said about the police video. “There may be alcohol, but that does not convict a person. The video is not the best that McAllen can do.”
Among the lack of evidence that Guerra cited was the fact that the only video that existed of Longoria was video of her after the arrest, at the police station, where she did not, to his eyes, appear to be intoxicated.
Longoria was wise to refuse to provide a breath or blood sample—except when a warrant has been issued, DWI suspects are not required to do so, and any defense attorney would advise his or her clients not to provide evidence without being required to. Of course, the other evidence that the state tends to collect from suspects voluntarily is dashcam video of field sobriety tests, which Guerra said did not exist.
Those videos exist in most DWI cases, although suspects aren’t required to follow the officer’s instructions that they perform the tests, which often include walking in a straight line heel-to-toe, answering questions, and submitting to an eye test. In Longoria’s case, however, she did perform those tests—and shortly after the charges were dismissed, the video of her on the side of the road was released.
In the video, Longoria doesn’t look great. Field sobriety tests are notoriously difficult, even for many sober people: if you’re clumsy or have poor balance, taking ten heel-to-toe steps on the gravel on the side of the road can be a difficult task regardless of when your last drink was. (Stand up at your desk and try it!) However, Longoria’s video is fairly egregious: she puts her arms out at her side, sways, stumbles, and generally does not look particularly sober.
That doesn’t mean that Longoria is necessarily intoxicated in the video, but that’s also not the discussion that Guerra and his office had: Instead, they denied the existence of the video itself, and used that as a justification for the dismissal.
According to Action 4 News in the Valley, Guerra said that the reason he didn’t have the video is that police failed to include it among the evidence he was given, and while it’s mentioned in a document, he never asked for it:
“I probably read that, but in relying on the completeness of the videos given to me, I did not see it,” Guerra said. “I did not know whether the dash cam was recording or not, I didn’t bother to ask and that was my oversight.”
Guerra said he will not reopen the case despite the new evidence.
“Had I seen the dash cam video I probably would have put her on a pre-trial diversion program,” he said.
The program is an equivalent of probation lasting anywhere from six months to two years.
“People will judge their opinion and accuse the good ol’ boy system and that’s okay,” Guerra said. “I’m going out December 31st and someone else will have to face the wrath of the public later on it they don’t like their decision.”
Guerra’s comments leave one to wonder whether a person with fewer connections in the criminal justice system would find that their dashcam video failed to materialize in the evidence provided to the prosecutor, who would subsequently fail to inquire if it existed. But Guerra is also correct in that, in most cases involving a first-time DWI suspect where the only evidence that exists is a dash-cam video, a pre-trial diversion program is a common outcome. Longoria escaped those relatively meager consequences, and Guerra’s response to those who criticized that outcome doesn’t do much to dispel questions about the integrity of his office.
Guerra was first elected in 1982, making him the second longest serving District Attorney in Texas history. He’s on his way out now, but he didn’t plan to retire: he lost a re-election bid for his ninth term by nearly a two-to-one margin in March. That’s an unusual way for a long-serving incumbent to go out, and given that he cited the fact that he’s almost out of the job when explaining why he didn’t request one of the most common pieces of evidence in a DWI case, one might conclude that that the voters in Hidalgo County made a reasonable choice. At the very least, little about how Longoria’s case was handled resembles the experience that most citizens can expect should they be arrested on suspicion of DWI.