GREENFIELD — 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 said.
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.”
Juries demand more
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.
Prices rising, too
When Griffin took office in 2011, an alcohol screen through Hancock Regional Hospital cost $32. The price today has nearly tripled at $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.
Warrants take time
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.”