Local lab to do forensic alcohol blood testing

Prosecutor says quick results a 'real game changer' for judicial system
Nov. 06, 2013 @ 08:07 AM

The wait for forensic blood test results for local judicial officials may shrink from two years to two hours, thanks to an agreement with Catawba Valley Medical Center and the district attorney's office.

The hospital in Hickory signed a contract late Monday with the DA's office to begin testing for pending court cases involving alcohol-related driving charges, said Assistant District Attorney Eric Bellas. A portion of the more than 100 samples from Burke, Caldwell and Catawba counties now at the State Crime Lab in Raleigh, where the wait for results can be as much as two years, will soon be shipped to CVMC.

"Catawba Valley Medical Center appreciates any and all opportunities it has to work with local authorities for the public good, said Tony Rose, president and CEO of the hospital. "In this instance, we look forward to helping the district attorney's office with this backlog of testing."

"This is the new paradigm," Bellas said. "This is a real game changer. The benefit is to not only the people of North Carolina, but to attorneys and courts, where cases are brought back again and again as we wait on results from the crime lab."

The state legislature set aside $500,000 to the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts as a line item to be used by local judicial districts to allow contracts to be signed with local hospitals in order to help alleviate the backog of evidence being processed at the State Crime Lab.

"This is really thinking outside of the box by the state legislature," said Peg Dorer, director of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, that is administering the funds. "The SBI has experienced a huge backlog of cases."

The 25th District was the first to sign a contract with a local hospital, according to Dorer.

"We jumped on the chance. It was a no-brainer," Bellas said.

The conference looked at blood draws across the state by county, and the pending case load at the crime lab, Dorer said.

"The districts have to show it can clean up the backlog," she said.

The crime lab, managed by the State Bureau of Investigation, operates a full-service laboratory in Raleigh, the Western Regional Crime Lab in Asheville, and the Triad Regional Crime Lab in Greensboro. Lab analysts examine all types of evidence related to criminal investigations free of charge to any public law enforcement agency in North Carolina, including local, state, federal, military and railroad police organizations. Law enforcement agencies rely almost exclusively on the crime lab for toxicological analysis. In the fiscal year 2011-12, Burkc, Caldwell and Catawba counties submitted 428 items for toxicology (blood/alcohol or blood/drug) analysis. The crime lab estimates that about 60 percent of toxicology submissions it receives are for blood drug analysis, which tends to be more time consuming and complicated than blood alcohol analysis. The resulting backlog at the crime lab has created a flurry of "rush order" requests from judges, which have proven to be largely ineffective, according to Bellas.

"Cases involving alcohol are delayed significantly because of the lack of resources," said retired Superior Court Judge Beverly T. Beal. "You have a lot of cases that involve blood alcohol content analysis. The availability of funds for that purpose is meritorious."

The money can also be used to pay for witness testimony of a local lab employee as needed. The districts invoices the AOC, who then cuts a check, Dorer said.

"The cooperative agreement between the DA's Office and CVMC to provide blood testing services in (these) cases will completely change the way (they) move through our courts in Burke, Caldwell and Catawba counties," said District Attorney Jay Gaither. "During the past 10 years, one of the obstacles to efficient prosecution has been the backlog of blood samples waiting at the crime lab for testing. During that time period the backlog in some cases has increased to two years while awaiting test results. With the relationship in place between the DA's office and CVMC, blood test results will now be available in a fraction of the time it currently takes, and will facilitate an even more aggressive and efficient collaborative enforcement and prosecution effort in these cases."