DWIs over Fourth of July weekend frustrate Valley DAs’ efforts

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The Texas Department of Public Safety is investigating a hit-and-run accident that left one man dead Sunday, July 2, 2023. (Courtesy photo)

At 4:26 a.m. Sunday, a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper came across a dead body lying on the west side of Alamo Road in Edinburg, and was informed that a suspect may be in custody.

Troopers encountered 40-year-old Juan Antonio Perez, who was distraught and emitting a faint odor of alcohol, at the intersection of Canton Road and Farm-to-Market Road 907, where they found his silver GMC Sierra.

The front end had a broken headlight and blood was smeared on the driver side.

Perez was charged with intoxicated manslaughter after hitting and killing 50-year-old Gerardo Ulloa with his truck, much to the concern of Hidalgo and Cameron County district attorneys Toribio “Terry” Palacios and Luis V. Saenz, respectively.

Both had been hoping for zero fatalities this Fourth of July holiday.

For Independence Day weekend, Palacios initiated the “No Refusal” campaign where citizens suspected of driving while intoxicated wouldn’t have the option of refusing a chemical test. Officers would be able to force a blood draw from a person who refuses a breathalyzer or urine test.

Saenz said he was disheartened because the objective of raising the presence of law enforcement during the July 4 holiday weekend was to prevent fatalities.

“It started midnight Thursday and that same night, there was a fatality,” Saenz said. “I was disappointed, hoping not to have any fatalities.”

Cameron County, however, has seen a decrease in intoxication-related manslaughter and assault cases since becoming a “No Refusal” county in 2015 — something Palacios expressed interest in doing for Hidalgo County.

“Eventually, I want Hidalgo County to become a No Refusal county … not only for the safety of the community but also to save our taxpayers money,” Palacios said.

Toribio “Terry” Palacios addresses the crowd during his swearing-in ceremony at Memorial Event Center on Monday, Jan. 2, 2023 in Edinburg. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

The former criminal defense attorney explained that whenever there’s a blood-alcohol content result above .08, those cases don’t go to trial, which saves money.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, Hidalgo County saw 60 DWI-related arrests. Last year’s Labor Day weekend saw about 88, according to Palacios. Meanwhile Cameron County saw 18 arrests this past weekend.

Because of the decrease in arrests, both DAs agree that “No Refusal” campaigns have been successful. However, they believe there’s still room for improvement.

“They were successful to an extent,” Saenz added. “I’m glad about that and happy about that, but there still remains a lot of work to be done.”

Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz

Saenz also noted that there’s a lower number of arrests in Cameron County because Hidalgo County has a larger population.

Palacios stated he isn’t against people drinking, but expressed frustration about the lacking use of alternative ways to get home safe.

“It’s OK to drink, just don’t get behind the wheel,” Palacios said. “Everybody knows they can get an Uber. Everybody does it. I don’t know why they don’t utilize that.”

He added that it’s better to spend $20 or $30 for a Lyft or Uber than paying thousands of dollars on a defense attorney to represent you in court.

Palacios asked the media for their help in raising awareness of the dangers of driving while intoxicated and said he believes the best way to reach people is through education.

Being charged with a DWI affects people’s jobs, insurance and work but being charged with manslaughter alters or potentially ruins people’s entire life, Palacios stressed.

Monitor staff writer Mark Reagan contributed to this story.