Raleigh, N.C. — Court cases are being put on hold for a year or more awaiting results from North Carolina's State Crime Laboratory, which is struggling with less staff and money and more evidence to analyze and legal requirements to fulfill.
Lab director Joseph R. John Sr. said that an increase in evidence submitted for testing also has led to long wait times for analysis. The lab's budget is $13.3 million, down from $13.6 million. Since 2009-10, the crime lab staff has decreased to 124 from 130.
John said there are only 12 toxicologists for the entire state, compared with about 20,000 law enforcement officers.
"If (each officer were to) work one DWI case a year, we're overwhelmed. We've got to have more numbers to work these cases," he said. "I don't challenge them on the statements that they are waiting longer. They are. It is not through lack of effort on our part."
An even bigger problem is a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling requiring analysts to testify about their work in person if the defense objects to the admission of the test results alone. Analysts are now spending four times as many hours traveling all over the state to testify, John said, noting that that's time they can't spend processing evidence.
The number of court hours, including travel, for forensic toxicologists in Raleigh grew from fewer than 700 in 2009 to more than 2,400 hours in 2010.
"Everybody here is on mandatory overtime. We're doing the absolute very best we can do with the numbers we have," he said.
John asked lawmakers for more money this year to expand the SBI's Western lab and add more analysts. House budget-writer Rep. Leo Daughtry said the funds just weren't available.
"The emphasis was so much on education that the courts just didn't do very well in the mix," said Daughtry, R-Johnston, who said lawmakers would try to secure more money for the crime lab next year.
John said the General Assembly has authorized a study of expanding the Asheville crime lab, which doesn't do blood toxicology testing now. The agency will report to the Senate and House committees early next year.
In western North Carolina, driving while impaired cases are being continued while prosecutors wait for test results. Earlier this month in Haywood County, prosecutors dismissed a DWI case against a man who had two prior convictions.
Prosecutors waited six months for the test results and another eight trying to get the former analyst who performed the test to testify. The analyst who did the testing left her job at the crime lab and didn't accept subpoenas sent via certified mail, said Haywood County District Attorney Mike Bonfoey. Without the analyst, prosecutors could not use the results of the blood test.
John said his office was not made aware of that situation.
He said the lab has intervened in the past to make sure a former employee testified, but "this person is not our employee anymore, and there's not a great deal we can do, other than appeal to their best civic interest and responsibility, and we're willing to do what we can."
The problems have increased interest in a lab in Asheville that could handle blood testing in cases like DWI and make it easier to arrange for lab employees to testify.
"The main thing that could happen to help western North Carolina is to expand the lab here," Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore said.
Wake County will open its own toxicology lab next month to remove its cases from the backlog at the crime lab, District Attorney Colon Willoughby said.
"There's more work to do, fewer people to do it and greater demands on what those people have to do," Willoughby said of the state lab. "It pinches the folks, and what happens is, the public loses because some of these drunk drivers and folks are getting off because of it."