Dropped case shows need for lab
A case involving a woman who was caught driving while impaired with a 3-year-old in the car was dismissed in district court last week, once again highlighting the need for a crime lab in the mountains.
Kimberly Uptergrove, 27, was charged with DWI and child abuse in February after backing her vehicle into the building in the McDonald’s parking lot on Russ Avenue with her daughter in the car. Waynesville police found open containers of beer in the car and a bag of marijuana under the child’s car seat.
Uptergrove was so impaired, she didn’t even realize she ran into the building, said Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed.
Having a child in the car while driving drunk could mean up to two years in jail if a person is found guilty. However, District Court Judge Monica Leslie dropped the charges after the state crime lab in Raleigh failed to complete and return Uptergrove’s blood alcohol results in time for the court date, an ongoing problem when it comes to prosecuting DWI offenders.
Understaffing and a severe backlog of alcohol blood test submissions in Raleigh keeps prosecutors from being able to settle DWI cases like this in a timely manner, or even at all. That’s because DWI offenders who refuse to submit to a breathalyzer must have their blood drawn and sent to Raleigh. On average, it takes about a year for law enforcement to receive the results, said Hollingsed. Sometimes it takes even longer.
Uptergrove’s blood sample had been on the waiting list at the state crime lab for nearly six months when her case was dismissed. Hollingsed, and others such as Ellen Pitt with MADD, worry that more judges will follow suit.
“It’s just creating a standard that we can’t meet right now,” said Holingsed.
Chief District Court Judge Richlyn Holt said there is no set standard for how many times a judge may continue a case.
“As long as the defendant doesn’t object, we’ll continue it as long as it needs to be continued,” he said.
But judges make decisions on DWI cases based on individual circumstances.
“If there is a strong objection, at some point we will deny the continuance. Regardless, at some point in time, the case will need to be heard,” Holt said.
If a case is dismissed because of lack of evidence, the district attorney has the option to recharge the defendant later.
“As soon as they get the blood back, they recharge it 99 percent of the time. So denying the continuance is not something that changes the speed in which the case can be opened and tried,” Holt said.
District Attorney Mike Bonfoey may choose to recharge Uptergrove once the results are returned to his office, but that will mean officers and prosecutors must go through the process all over again.
Leslie also recently dismissed a similar case involving a Jackson County mother driving while impaired with her child in the car, said Pitt, who is outraged every time she sees a DWI case dismissed because of a lack of evidence.
“This is worrisome for tax payers who must fund the tasks of locating and recharging these individuals and it’s sad for the children of western North Carolina that this kind of message is being sent to them,” Pitt said.
The closest crime lab in Asheville focuses only on fingerprinting and drug testing. About 38 percent of the state’s blood alcohol testing comes from western North Carolina, which contributes to the backlog.
The general assembly recently appropriated $1.44 million to fund the planning for a 36,000-square-foot building for a western crime lab in Edneyville in Henderson County, however no money has been set aside to begin construction once the plans are made, said Noelle Talley, spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Justice.
Legislators also appropriated funding for 19 new toxicology positions for the new lab.
“We’re in the process of hiring for those new position and then they will be trained at the existing labs in Raleigh and Greensboro. We’ll continue to push in the next legislative session for the funds needed to construct the new lab facility,” Talley said.
While the legislature did not authorize capital funding for construction in the 2013 legislative session, two bills, Senate Bill 3 and House Bill 39 remain eligible for discussion on funding a western crime lab in the 2014 session.
When complete, the project is expected to relieve the backlog of testing in Raleigh and make it easier for lab analysts to appear in court when called upon.
However, it could still take several years before the lab is up and running. A new law that grants permission to local hospitals to conduct DWI testing will alleviate the problem locally, but even that is not in full effect yet.
Hollingsed hopes that once his officers can take blood samples to MedWest Haywood, local DWI cases will go through the system much quicker and will work as a stop-gap measure until a crime lab can be funded.
“Even if half the counties in the state started utilizing their local hospitals for DWI testing it would alleviate the problem a great deal,” he said.