State budget OKs crime lab construction
The new state budget approved last week appropriates money for a long-needed project that is expected to speed up driving while impaired and other blood alcohol cases in the western part of the state.
In the $21 billion budget, the General Assembly has appropriated about $15.4 million for the construction of a western crime lab to be built in Edneyville — just outside of Hendersonville.
It's something local legislators vowed to make happen in response to a severe backlog of blood alcohol testing at the state lab, which has caused an ongoing strain on the judicial system for the past several years.
When driving while impaired suspects refuse to submit to a breathalyzer, law enforcement must obtain a search warrant to draw their blood. That blood sample must then be sent to Raleigh for testing, which because of the backlog can often take more than a year to come back.
In the meantime, it's impossible for prosecutors to move forward with cases without the blood results and it's not unusual for cases to be dismissed when judges refuse to continue cases over long periods of time.
Former crime lab director Joseph R. John, who retired in June, was a champion for the new lab, spending countless hours with legislators in Raleigh as the current budget bill was being contemplated.
He and John Byrd, who recently took over as crime lab director, visited the Waynesville Police Department last week to discuss and celebrate the next step toward making the dream come true.
The General Assembly appropriated $1.4 million for engineers to come up with renderings for the 36,000 square-foot building last fiscal year, which are now completed.
"They gave us the final renderings down to what door knobs and window fashions are going in every part of the building," said Byrd. "We will be ready to submit bids as soon as the budget is signed."
The amount of time construction will take is yet to be determined by the chosen contractor. When asked about the ideal timeframe, John said, "yesterday," only half jokingly.
Byrd said contractors have estimated it to take 14 to 18 months.
"A year-and-a-half to get it done would be great," he said.
The new lab will be considered a full-service lab offering DNA, toxicology and other services most needed by law enforcement.
"There is a healthy price tag to this building," John said of the multi-million dollar project.
That's because the facility isn't a typical office building — it requires specific HVAC systems, heightened security measures because of evidence, more stability to prevent vibration in the building and much more.
Training for new analysts is already under way so that when the lab is built, work can begin immediately. While the lab is still being built, those new lab analysts will be focusing their efforts on helping to clear the backlog.
"Western North Carolina will be our No. 1 priority for new analysts so we can give some immediate relief," Byrd said.
Once the western crime lab is up and running, Byrd said it will take some time for the backlog to clear. But then law enforcement and prosecutors should see some significant changes.
"After we get excess inventory knocked down, the ideal turnaround is 30 days or less," he said.
Exacerbating the backlog problem is a 2009 superior court case that ruled crime lab analysts must appear in person in court when a defendant requests it. This ruling means taking scientists away from the backed up workload and requiring travel a minimum of four hours just to get to Waynesville.
In fiscal year 2012-2013, crime lab scientists accumulated nearly 3,000 hours of to court time. Only 9 percent of that time was spent in actual court testimony — the remaining time was spent on travel and time sitting in court waiting for the case to be heard or their presence dismissed.
Analysts are taxed with often working more than 40-hour weeks, accumulating thousands of hours of overtime each year, said Byrd.
An average of 38,119 cases were submitted per year between 2009 and 2013. According to that number, last year's 124 scientists would have been expected to complete 1,230 cases each.
"That's obviously physically impossible," John said.
Prosecutors can ask that certain serious cases be expedited, but that in turn puts other tests on the back burner.
"We have still only been able to address rush requests," Byrd said. "We're barely holding our heads above water."
The new crime lab will help to alleviate some of the problem as analysts hired at the western crime lab will be able to focus efforts only on cases in the western counties. That will free up analysts in Raleigh to focus on cases in the piedmont and coastal parts of the state.
It will also mean quicker case turnaround times and a much shorter distance for analysts to travel to court.
However, Byrd said non-competitive pay is also a struggle that must be dealt with in the coming years. Since 2010, at least 56 scientists have left the crime lab for better paying jobs.
Though state employees received a pay raise across the board this year, crime lab salaries are 16 percent below the average minimum in neighboring states.
"Retaining quality scientists has been a real challenge for us," Byrd said.
Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed has been a strong advocate for finding a way to alleviate the problem over the years. It was during a meeting held at the Waynesville Police Department in 2012 that legislators vowed to be aggressive on this issue, and Hollingsed is happy to see they followed through.
"We are very appreciative of the efforts of legislators that made this possible," he said. "We're excited about having a full-service crime lab here in western North Carolina. It will greatly increase the efficiency of the process in the criminal justice system."
Since legislators began to take notice of the issue two years ago, Hollingsed said he was told it would be about a four-year process to get the crime lab in place, which seems to be right on track.
For Ellen Pitt, western North Carolina representative for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), seeing steps toward a local crime lab is a dream come true.
Part of her job is providing support to the victims of driving while impaired crashes and families of those who have died as a result of a drunk driver. She sees first hand the effects that prolonged court cases have on the victims looking for justice. In many cases, justice is never found.
"I can't even begin to tell you how important this is because the delays have cost us in a human way as well," she said.
District Attorney Mike Bonfoey has also seen the effects of the backlog on every end of the spectrum.
"I think it's going to benefit everybody in the state, it's going to be especially helpful for the citizens in western North Carolina and law enforcement in getting evidence examined in a timely manner and having the examiners available so they don't have to drive from Raleigh," he said.
It will also reduce the strain on his prosecutors, who have the added stress of scheduling trials around when and if blood samples will be returned and analysts can be in court.