A new toxicology unit opening soon in an Asheville crime lab is a move toward addressing a backlog in the state crime lab, where the evidence is piling up, literally.
The unit, which will add 10 technicians for analyzing blood samples for the presence of drugs and alcohol, is undergoing lab equipment verification and will open once that process is complete.
Existing cases from western counties will be transferred from the state lab in Raleigh to the new unit, and those counties also will send new evidence directly there.
Surry County is not on that list.
Local evidence goes to the Triad Crime Lab in Greensboro and the Raleigh lab.
According to John Byrd, director of the state crime lab, “the new Western Regional Crime Lab will not affect Surry County’s current evidence load.”
However, encouraged by legislators’ response to widespread lobbying for funding increases, Surry County Sheriff Graham Atkinson is optimistic.
“These issues have been building for years,” said Atkinson. “We’re hoping that over time, the benefit will spread over the state.”
Dobson Police Chief Shawn Myers agreed.
“Any amount they can increase will help us,” he said.
Byrd said the opening of an additional DNA lab, slated for 2017, may more directly speed things up for evidence from Surry County.
According to an October 2014 memo, “the most pressing current challenge includes a critical need to analyze and process 11,000 unworked toxicology cases.”
Lack of funding, staffing shortages and retention problems are among the factors contributing to processing delays.
Additionally, a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating that lab technicians must personally attend a trial to provide the results of their lab tests complicates the situation, as a day in court means a day away from the lab.
The state provided increased funds for the new units beginning in 2013. Additional funding requests this year were submitted in budget requests of the governor, the House and Senate, and in several bills introduced in both chambers of the General Assembly.
One bill would make written toxicology analysis admissible in District Court in certain circumstances.
The sizable backlog has caused increasing frustration for local law enforcement — and victims.
“There’s not a single good thing about having a backlogged lab,” said Atkinson.
“If a defendant’s made bond, you’ve got a bad guy out on the streets that should be in prison,” Atkinson said. “The other issue is if you’ve got a strong suspect but not enough to get probable cause,” waiting for evidence to serve an arrest warrant can be dangerous, especially with homicides or sexual assaults.
“It loads up the court docket,” Atkinson said, which can make prosecutors more susceptible to plea bargains, and without crucial evidence, give the defense an advantage.
Myers estimated that toxicology reports for substance abuse cases or DWI other than alcohol take between a year and a half and two years to process.
As a result, officers often end up testifying with the “appreciably impaired” part of the statute, which means the officer testifies that the defendant demonstrated inability to function as a normal person.
“It’s harder for the officers,” to get a conviction, Myers said.
A subpoenaed technician unable to appear in court to testify, a problem amplified as the court’s distance from the lab increases, causes further delays in a trial and possibly even leads to a dismissal, Atkinson said.
“The folks that work in the lab work hard and they do a good job. There’s just not enough of them,” the sheriff said.
Terri Flagg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 336-415-4734.