Missing police paperwork allows DWI suspect to go free

By Jace Larson - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - A suspected drunken driver whose hospital records show he tested more than three times the legal limit has been set free and his charges dropped because Houston police officers did not document any attempts to arrest him on the charge for 11 years, Local 2 Investigates has confirmed.

Alberto Sarto had a blood alcohol level of .26, according to court documents, when he crashed into a police officer's cruiser in 2002. Both Sarto and Officer Whitman Liu were severely injured.

Sarto was charged with his third DWI and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

When police eventually picked him up this year, his attorney successfully argued the case should be tossed out because Sarto did not get a speedy trial and police officers did not do due diligence by trying to find him after the 2002 incident.

"I think the law sucks," said Houston Police Union President Ray Hunt. "It would shock me if nobody went to that person's house to look for him. I believe we probably did run those warrants in 2002, but we can't prove it to the judge."

"The sixth amendment guarantees every defendant the right to a speedy trial," Local 2 legal analyst Brian Wice said.

Wice believes the judge did the right thing by dismissing the case.

"Criminal cases are not like a fine wine. They do not get better with age," Wice said. "To attempt to craft a defense from a decade ago, when most people can't remember what they had for dinner last night, really is fundamentally unfair."

Sarto's lawyer argued his client did not hide from police. Sarto used a passport to travel to and from the United States, and even renewed his Texas driver's license in 2005.

The Houston Police Department acknowledged it did not have documentation to show officers ever attempted to arrest Sarto.

The department now has a policy in place requiring that officers document attempts to arrest someone who has a warrant.

A department spokesman told Local 2 Investigates no officer faces discipline as a result of the missing paperwork.

Here is the full text of the Houston Police Department's statement:

"Our understanding is this DWI case involving the suspect, Mr. Sorto, was dismissed by a judge for lack of a speedy trial.  We further learned the Harris County District Attorney's Office would not pursue any re-filing of charges in this 2002 case.

All police agencies have a responsibility to be aware of outstanding warrants filed in their jurisdictions and make attempts to execute those warrants given the resources of their organizations.  There are times when members of HPD make attempts to execute warrants and arrest wanted suspects.  In this case, we have no documentation confirming warrant executions at Mr. Sorto's known address by HPD or the Harris County Sheriff's Office.   

Over the past decade, our Vehicular Crimes Division has instituted procedures to ensure that attempts to arrest suspects on outstanding warrants are carried out and properly documented.  Additionally, we have and will continue to work with all county law enforcement agencies to ensure that outstanding warrants are entered into state and national databases accessible to any law enforcement officer.  HPD files thousands of charges resulting in outstanding warrants each and every year.  Many of the warrants are in Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties.

The HPD will constantly review its warrant execution procedures to ensure we can do everything possible to bring wanted suspects to justice."

If you have a tip for investigative reporter Jace Larson, email him at jlarson@kprc.com or interact with him on Facebook and Twitter.

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