Test policy puts officials at odds

GREENFIELD — Some police officers worry a cost-cutting measure implemented by the local prosecutor’s office has left them with less evidence to arrest someone they suspect is driving impaired.

The Greenfield Fire Territory and Hancock County Prosecutor’s Office struck a deal a year ago to have local paramedics conduct blood draws on suspected drunken drivers, rather than taking drivers to Hancock Regional Hospital. The change resulted in more than $34,000 in savings in 2015, prosecutors say; but without the immediate preliminary test result the hospital provided, some officers worry they have less evidence to make an arrest.

The hospital’s procedure was more expensive — about double the tests cost now — but also provided officers with a printout of substances found in the person’s blood. Paramedics draw the suspect’s blood but don’t have the technology to test it on site, instead sending it to a lab.

That leaves some officers feeling as though they have less of a leg to stand on when placing a person in handcuffs. Going without the initial blood-test result means they are relying solely on observations during a traffic stop when making their arrest.

Police look for erratic driving, sudden changes in speed or direction and other traffic infractions when deciding whether to pull over a vehicle. While speaking to a driver, officers look for additional evidence, including bloodshot eyes, slurred speech or a smell of alcohol on a driver’s breath.

While those signs are legally enough to make an arrest — a person can be jailed on an impaired driving charge even without a blood test result — officers say test results confirmed their suspicions.

The hospital’s preliminary results weren’t admissible in court until tested further by a crime lab, but officers generally knew what drugs or how much alcohol the suspect had ingested and if an arrest was warranted, Greenfield Police Sgt. Rod Vawter said.

“As an officer, I’d feel more comfortable if I had that paperwork to go on,” Vawter said.

The paperwork the hospital provided gave officers peace of mind, said Hancock County Sheriff’s Sgt. Trent Smoll.

Smoll said he knows an officer’s observations are enough to go on to make an arrest, but like Vawter, he and many of the officers he supervises would feel more comfortable having the results immediately before taking someone to jail.

Prosecutor Brent Eaton — who spearheaded the change early last year — said state law makes it clear officers’ observations during a traffic stop are enough to make a drunken-driving arrest. And, unfortunately, the hospital’s blood test was a luxury the prosecutor’s office could no longer afford, he said.

At the hospital, an alcohol screen cost $93, and a dual blood test to screen for drugs and alcohol cost $280; samples were then sent to a crime lab at an additional charge.

When paramedics draw the blood, it costs between $50 and $100, depending on whether the test is taken at the police station — located next door to the fire department — or sheriff’s department down the street.

In 2014, the prosecutor’s office footed a $49,000 bill for 217 blood draws at the hospital; in 2015, that dropped to $15,000 because of the change in protocol, Eaton said.

Blood samples are still sent to the Indiana State Department of Toxicology, so local authorities receive test results; they’re just delayed by a few weeks, said R.J. Beaver, the EMS division chief for the Greenfield Fire Territory.

Eaton said he is confident the strength of criminal cases has not suffered because of the change.

“This is the more cost-effective, time-efficient way of making sure these laws are enforced,” he said. “We can’t spend $50,000 a year we don’t have.”

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.