Jackson defense attorney Alex Freeburg went before Wyoming Supreme Court justices on Nov. 19 to argue against the conviction of a Teton County man who was found guilty of interference last year for refusing a judge’s warrant for his blood.
The case stemmed from a December 2018 arrest on Highway 22.
The driver, Christian Garza, said he felt discriminated against when he was pulled over for speeding.
After he was stopped by a Teton County deputy he was arrested on suspicion of DUI.
Garza admitted to drinking several beers, police said in court documents, and submitted to a few field tests but refused breath, blood and urine tests.
“I’m not going to allow you to take any blood from me,” Garza told Deputy Bradley Goering. “I feel racially discriminated against because I’m a Mexican American. I just don’t trust you, man.”
Goering told Garza that he stopped him for speeding 62 in a 45 mph zone.
Garza insisted he wasn’t speeding and believed he was pulled over for having Texas plates.
“I’m not going to argue with you, brother,” Goering said.
In Wyoming if a DUI defendant refuses a blood test police can apply for a search warrant under the Wyoming Implied Consent Advisement. The law was enacted in 2011.
Goering told Garza if he refused the blood draw he would be charged with interference with a peace officer.
The case went to trial in April and a jury found Garza guilty of interference.
He was sentenced to serve 75 days in jail.
Garza then appealed the conviction to the Wyoming Supreme Court, and his jail stay was suspended pending the justices’ ruling, which is expected within 90 days.
On Nov. 19 Freeburg showed justices the video interaction between Garza and Goering. They were at St. John’s Medical Center when Garza refused to give his blood.
“He is peaceful,” Freeburg points out. “He is seated. He doesn’t have the capacity to do anything violent in that position.”
Freeburg said his client shouldn’t have been charged with interference because he physically didn’t protest.
“He isn’t being violent,” Freeburg said. “He is asking for a lawyer.”
Freeburg argued that Garza didn’t interfere with the officer because he was never ordered to do anything, because a warrant is an order for the officer to collect something or someone.
He believes his client’s actions were more of a legal protest.
“There was evidence to conclude that he was peacefully resisting,” Freeburg said. “You can criticize an officer. You can formally protest. You can disagree.”
Garza doesn’t believe his behavior constituted interference.
“The punishment is abuse of power,” Garza previously told the News&Guide. “It’s an overreach of government power.”
Attorney Timothy Zintak, who represents the state in the matter, asked justices to affirm the conviction.
He made the argument that for most people an interference conviction is better than a DUI.
“For the Teton County Sheriff’s Office, it’s part of their policy to avoid potential for physical interaction,” Zintak said. “There are times people seek to game the system and refuse.”
Defense attorneys in the past have said they understand that imposing jail time is a deterrent for resisting but that a layperson might not understand.
“This is so ingrained in our culture. You hear about the right to remain silent,” Attorney Ed Bushnell previously told the News&Guide. “And there are certain tests you can refuse. You have the right to refuse the portable breath test and the blood test initially. But to the layperson, all of a sudden a piece of paper is held up and the officer calls it a warrant, what does that mean to a person when an arrest is so surreal to the average person anyway?”
The most recent challenge to the blood draw interference charge was in 2014 when Gregory Matthews appealed a similar charge to the Wyoming Supreme Court, leaving the questions of the appeal largely unanswered.
The only hint was left in a footnote of the opinion.
“Based on the record before us it does not appear that the officer’s request for Mr. Matthews to comply with the warrant and Mr. Matthews’ negative response is sufficient to constitute interference; however this determination will have to await a full development of the record at trial,” justices wrote.
The Teton County Prosecutor’s Office later dismissed Matthews’ interference charge, leaving confusion about whether charging defendants with interference when they refuse a blood draw is constitutional.
Since the case didn’t go to trial, a final decision was never made on the legal issue.
Police said they won’t hold someone down and force a blood draw in a misdemeanor traffic offense unless someone is seriously hurt or killed in a crash.