DUI evidence analysis backlogs / limited lab capacity and capabilities are killing us

If blood can't be analyzed on a timely basis, drivers under the influence of alcohol and drugs remain free. Free to cause accidents. Free to wreak havoc. Free to harm others. Free to kill unsuspecting drivers, passengers, and pedestrians. Prosecutors are often driven (no pun intended) to negotiate with DUI drivers, deal down sentences, reduce the crime type for a guilty plea, and in many cases being unable to prosecute due to lack of available evidence.
291 fatalities occurred on Nevada highways in 2014, with 93, or 32% of them involving drivers with BACs of .08 or higher. Preliminary numbes for 2015, from the Nevada Office of Traffic Safety, show that "...321 traffic fatalities occured on Nevada roads in 2015, a 10.3% increase from 2014..." The traffic fatalities have increased each year from 2011 through 2015.
The Henderson Forensic Laboratory can complete alcohol and drug testing on biological samples in a matter of weeks. But that ability is extremely limited due to lab space and manpower limitations. The only large forensic laboratory in Southern Nevada (the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Forensic Lab) has months-long delays.
Delays in forensic evidence analysis is an injustice to our communities. It strains law enforcment resources, many opportunities to solve and prevent crimes are missed, and innocent lives are lost.
Help us build a new forensic science center. Help us solve crime, prevent crime, and save lives.

Many drivers suspected of DUI/alcohol have high levels of prescription and illicit drugs in their blood.
Photo: Justin Yurkan, July 2014, Las Vegas Review-Journal

Old 4,500 sq. ft. forensic lab, Henderson, NV.

Henderson Forensic Lab limitations impede additional analysis capacity - Southern Nevada has limited lab resources

Henderson is unable to expand forensic evidence analysis capacity due the small size and condition of the current laboratory building. The building was intended for use as a temporary facility in 2005, but funds have not been available to build a correct-size facility. The small building has numerous electrical and other facility problems that are cost prohibitive to repair/replace, and the building cannot be enlarged. This also limits Henderson’s ability to help other agencies in southern Nevada. Drivers obviously operated in many areas throughout the region, so Henderson’s limitations present problems for the Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, Boulder City, the unincorporated areas served by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, etc.; and vice versa.

LVMPD Forensic Laboratory backlogs

In addition to the small Henderson lab, there is only one other forensic crime laboratory in Southern Nevada that can test blood for alcohol and drugs.

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) Forensic Laboratory is many times larger than the Henderson lab and has proportionately larger service population, but reportedly has typical backlogs of approximately two to six months for DUI blood alcohol analysis, and significantly longer backlogs for blood drug analysis. Reportedly, the LVMPD lab can only screen and confirm approximately fifteen different drugs in blood, and sends some of the evidence to a private laboratory in another state for analysis (as of April 2016).

Photo: Liquid Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer, quadrupole (LC-MS/MS), in a Forensic Toxicology lab

Unmatched capabilities of the Henderson Forensic Lab

The temporary Henderson Forensic Laboratory has capabilities unmatched in the State of Nevada. The lab’s capabilities help identify persons who should no longer drive the roadways, preventing accidents and saving lives. It also is instrumental in exonerating drivers who have been suspected and charged for driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, but who had not violated the law.

The Henderson Forensic Toxicology Lab has the unique capability to complete testing of DUI blood evidence for alcohol and drugs in a time frame that allows law enforcement, prosecutors and defense attorneys to review results of analysis in approximately 5 to 6 weeks (as of July 2016).


If blood alcohol concentration (BAC) analysis results are below .084 percent (Nevada’s “illegal per se” law is .080), the Toxicology lab screens the blood for drugs. It conducts qualitative analysis to determine the presence or absence of specific drugs and quantitative analysis to determine the quantity of a drug present. As of July 2016, the Henderson Forensic Toxicology lab can screen for, confirm, and quantitate more than 77 different drugs in blood, including some synthetic cathinones (bath salts).

In 98% of cases where a person was detained/arrested for suspected DUI in Henderson, and the BAC results were less than .083%, the Henderson forensic lab confirmed the presence of drugs in the blood. In 95% of those confirmed cases, two or more drugs were identified. Based on information presented at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences annual meeting in February 2016, the LVMPD lab confirmed drugs in blood in 70% to 80% of the cases where the blood alcohol level was below the limit of the "illegal per se" law. The number of multiple drugs confirmed was not provided.

Ambien (Zolpidem), Methoxetamine (MXE), Ultram (tramadol) – Henderson's lab was the first in Nevada to develop the ability to screen for and confirm Ambien (Zolpidem) in blood, confirming its presence and quantity in the blood of a driver suspected of causing a fatal traffic collision. The lab recently became the first publicly funded forensic laboratory in Nevada to confirm the presence and quantity of Methoxetamine, a designer drug, in blood. The lab is also the first forensic lab in Southern Nevada, perhaps the state, to develop the capability to confirm Ultram in blood. Ultram can cause death when combined with alcohol, or otherwise used improperly. Included in the 70 drugs the lab can test, are several other drugs the lab also has unique screening and confirmation capabilities for Tricyclic Antidepressants, Sertraline, Citalopram, Fentanyl, and others. To appreciate the possibilities for injury or death that can occur as a direct result of drivers under the influence of these and other drugs, see www.drugs.com.


DUI Information and 2014 Crash Stats

Drivers are considered to be alcohol-impaired when their blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) are .08 grams per deciliter (g/dL) or higher (the "Illegal Per Se" law). The limit is 0.04 for commercial drivers. Violators of the Per Se Law are assumed by law to be impaired. Any fatal crash involving a driver with a BAC of .08 g/dL or higher is considered to be an alcohol-impaired-driving crash, and fatalities occurring in those crashes are considered to be alcohol-impaired-driving fatalities. The term “driver” refers to the operator of any motor vehicle, including a motorcycle. (NCSA, 2015, p1)

Per Nevada Revised Statute (NRS) 484C.110, there are multiple ways a person may violate DUI laws, including certain conditions when: "...under the influence of a controlled substance"; "under the combined influence of intoxicating liquor and a controlled substance..."; or "...Inhales, ingests, applies or otherwise uses a chemical, poison or organic solvent, or any compound or combination of any of these, to a degree which renders the person incapable of safely driving or exercising actual physical control of a vehicle..."; and other circumstances.

As reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 32,675 persons were killed in vehicle crashes in the United States in 2014. Of those, 31%, or 9,967 involved drivers with BACs of .08 or higher. Among them, 290 fatalities occurred on Nevada highways, with 93, or 32% of them involving drivers with BACs of .08 or higher. An additional 20 persons (7% of the total number of fatalities) died where involved drivers had BACs of .01 to .07 percent. (NCSA, 2015, Table 4).

Unfortunately, very little data is available to demonstrate the number of vehicle crashes, particularly fatal crashes, where drugs were the cause of impairment or a factor related to impairment. The first large-scale study in the U.S. to include drugs other than alcohol was conducted by NHTSA in Virginia Beach, VA. The research involved 2,600 “crash drivers” and 5,301 “control drivers” (potentially impaired drivers not involved in crashes). NHTSA reported that 16% of the “crash drivers” and 14.4% of the “control drivers” tested positive for drugs. Slightly more than half of those drivers tested positive for drugs other than THC (marijuana). Note: Some drivers tested positive for more than one drug. (Compton, 2015, Table 1)

References:

  • National Center for Statistics and Analysis (NCSA). (2015, December). Alcohol-impaired driving: 2014 data. (Traffic Safety Facts. DOT HS 812 231). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
  • Nevada Revised Statutes (NRS), Prohibited Acts Section 484C.110 1, 2, 3.
  • Compton, R. P. & Berning, A. (2015, February). Drug and alcohol crash risk. (Traffic Safety Facts Research Note. DOT HS 812 117). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Nevada Department of Public Safety Plan

The 2016 Nevada Highway Safety Performance Plan describes a lot of trends and performance measures for reducing the number of vehicle crashes that are due to impaired driving. Many goals have been established to reduce crashes, and especially those resulting in serious injury or death, involving drivers/motorcycle operators with a BAC of 0.08 or above.

However, the Performance Plan seems to imply that the battle against impaired driving due to drugs is a nearly unsurmountable stumbling block. The plan appears to reflect a defeatist attitude due to limitations in Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) training and certification for officers, as well as describing the limited training and experience on the part of prosecutors to prove impairment in a trial.

As illustrated below, the Plan clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of how a major increase in forensic toxicology laboratory analysis capacity and capability will result in significant improvements in the fight against driving while impaired by alcohol and other drugs.

The report states, in part:

Impaired driving fatalities have been a consistent problem in Nevada and the most common cause of motor vehicle crashes resulting in injuries and death. From 2009–2013 data, one out of every 106 drivers in Nevada was arrested for driving under the influence of impaired [sic] or a controlled or prohibited substance. This represents more than 41 impaired drivers being removed from Nevada’s roadway system each day. Due to serious penalties for impaired driving under Nevada law, many cases proceed to trial. Impaired driving cases that involve crashes are especially difficult to prove because the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that impairment led to the incident. (Wright, 2016, p40)

"Labs can do a standard screen for the most commonly encountered drugs, but that still leaves many possibilities unaccounted for. This problem will continue to grow as the number of drugs increase and their capacity for impairment is unknown." (Wright, 2016, p41)

"…Most misdemeanor level prosecutors have little in the way of specialized training in prosecuting DUI drug cases. In addition, officers lack the training to testify as to why the results may have differed from their initial estimations and the prosecutors lack the training to solicit the explanatory questions. Judges are left with no choice but to find an impaired defendant not guilty. Not because the defendant wasn’t impaired, but because the prosecutor could not provide the exact reason for the impairment as verified by a laboratory." (Wright, 2016, p41)

The 491 page plan only mentions the word "lab" one time and "laboratory" one time in regard to blood alcohol/blood drug analysis. Both are included in the quotes above. Two other uses of "lab", one which was preceded by "forensic", were related to "CMI Intoxilizer" software.

Without question, forensic laboratories are a key resource in the fight against DUIs.

References: Wright, J.M (2016). Nevada Department of Public Safety, Office of Traffic Safety, 2016 Nevada Highway Safety Performance Plan. Retrieved from www.ots.nv.gov/uploadedFiles/otsnvgov/content/.../2016%20HSP%20final.pdf