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."



  • 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. I think the cops are doing a great job locking up criminals. The Murder rates in the inner cities are skyrocketing and you think that too any people are being incarcerated. Maybe we need to lock up more of them. We have the ACLU, BLM, NAACP, Civil right Division of the DOJ, the innocent Project etc. We have court system with an appeal process that can go on for years, with attorneys supplied by the government. I'm confused as to how that translates into the idea that the defendants are not being represented properly. Maybe the attorneys need to do more Pro-Bono work

  2. We do not have 10% of our population (which would mean about 32 million) incarcerated. It's closer to 2%.

  3. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  4. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  5. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.