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Blood tests for DWI cases costing Hancock County

 Associated Press
July 23, 2014
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In the hands of a jury, a simple blood test can mean the difference between a drunken-driver who is convicted and one who walks free.

With the popularity of crime dramas causing what public safety officials call "the CSI effect," jurors today have come to expect law enforcement to provide irrefutable data in cases that go to trial.

But in drunken-driving cases, the same tests prosecutors say have become necessary to successfully convict are also draining an important county budget.

The prosecutor's diversion fund, which covers the initial cost of blood tests given to suspected drunken drivers, received a $23,000 appropriation for 2014. That amount is nearly exhausted, Hancock County Prosecutor Michael Griffin told the Daily Reporter.

That's due in part to rising costs for blood draws, but also because of an unexpected increase in the number of suspects who refuse the alternative, a breath test, after being stopped. A breath test is one of the most basic steps for measuring a person's sobriety, and it doesn't cost the county a dime; but when a person refuses to cooperate, the county must foot the bill to test their blood.

The county council is expected to approve an additional $26,000 appropriation in the coming weeks to cover testing through the end of 2014.

Typically, about 175 drunken-driving suspects refuse breath tests each year and are given blood tests as a result. This year, that number is expected to exceed 190 refusals, according to current estimates.

That's a frustrating reality for law enforcement officials.

"It's an unnecessary expense," Griffin said. "We shouldn't have to pay for that. Breath tests are free."

When an officer stops a driver he believes is impaired, the person behind the wheel is usually asked to take a breath test, as well as submit to a variety of physical tests aimed at evaluating sobriety. A portable breath-test kit - the kind carried by officers in their squad cars - provides an estimated result that is not admissible in court but gives police a good idea if the motorist is over the legal threshold of 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content.

The investigating officer can also administer a more-advanced breath test, one given at the police station using a specialized piece of equipment. That result can be given to a jury if the case goes to trial. If a person refuses that test, the officer is faced with having to obtain a search warrant for their blood.

It's a step that wasn't always necessary.

In the past, juries frequently relied on officer testimony that a driver was weaving in and out of traffic, had slurred speech or other characteristics consistent with impairment. Today's juries, conditioned by the flood of unrealistic crime dramas, are more demanding, and experts say assuring a conviction is all about the numbers.

Juries today expect data to support an officer's allegations, which places law enforcement in the position of having to secure a blood screen for those who refuse a breath test.

"Those test results are golden," Griffin said.

But they come at a cost. In 2011, the county spent $12,600 on the tests. This year, Griffin expects the total will exceed $44,000.

When Griffin took office in 2011, an alcohol screen through Hancock Regional Hospital cost $32. The price today has nearly tripled to $93. In 2011, a dual blood test for drugs and alcohol cost $87. That test costs $280 today.

Hancock Regional spokesman Rob Matt said the increase is based on several factors, some beyond the hospital's control.

In 2012, the hospital discovered it had overlooked what it was charging the county for the tests; they were being offered far below cost.

The following year, Medicare raised its rates for the tests, and hospitals were required to follow suit, Matt said.

"Nobody can charge less than Medicare," Matt said. "Medicare is the threshold."

The hospital hiked its rates yet again in 2013 in response to an increased strain on personnel who were being subpoenaed by courts to testify.

The county is no longer paying solely for the tests to be performed, but also for hospital staff members to then go to court to testify about the validity of the results at trial, Matt said.

"We are now sending medical folks and at times three different staff members to a court hearing to substantiate a test," Matt said. "We're passing along part of that cost because we're paying these folks to be downtown."

And when it comes to keeping streets safe, prosecutors say the county has no choice but to ante up for the test that makes a conviction more likely.

"I think it's come to a point that if we have the scientific technology, why aren't we using it, and so in their minds, many jurors require some objective test result to guide their judgment," Griffin said.

When a driver believed to be impaired refuses a breath test, an officer must prove to a judge there is probable cause to order the driver to take a blood test.

The process can take time, especially if the traffic stop occurs in the middle of the night when officers must awaken the judge and prosecutor on call.

It's a delay some impaired drivers are counting on, perhaps in hopes they will metabolize enough alcohol in their bloodstream to be legally sober by the time the blood draw is taken.

In 2007, former Prosecutor Dean Dobbins spearheaded an effort to quicken the process of getting search warrants for blood samples.

He used diversion fund money to put fax machines in the homes of the county's three judges, allowing officers to quickly send requests for search warrants.

Still, the process expends manpower unnecessarily after a traffic stop that could be over with a simple breath test, Police Chief John Jester said.

"It adds time to it because we have to get a search warrant and then go up and spend time at the hospital with them," he said.

Prosecutors say they're sensitive to law enforcement's frustration, and they pay attention to the details of every report when determining whether to offer a defendant a plea agreement.

In terms of sentencing, the penalties can be more severe for those who refused a breath test and cost the county time and money, Griffin said.

The prosecutor's office is less likely to negotiate with a person who failed to cooperate and cost the county money for an unnecessary test, Griffin said.

"We are less forgiving on the terms that we offer," he said. "And we don't feel bad about that. If you are so aware of what's going on that you decide you're going to do your best to avoid enforcement, then we think that intent should be punished more heavily."

    

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  • Solution #1
    Pass Legislation to require guilty defendants to pay for the costs of lab work, etc as part of court costs...

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  1. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  2. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

  4. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  5. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

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