Special Report: DWI Backlog
Those charged with DWI in North Carolina, even those with their own children in the car, could be free for months or even years waiting for their cases to come up.
27-year old Kimberly Uptergrove was arrested for DWI in February when Waynesville police say she backed her vehicle into a McDonalds on Russ Avenue with her 3-year-old daughter in the car. It has taken until November for her case to be prosecuted.
That's because the State Crime Lab in Raleigh does all the blood-alcohol analysis for the entire state. The backlog means swift justice is delayed and often those charged are back out on the road.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving says far too many cases are stuck in the lab.
"I think the last time they looked at it there were 13,000 cases statewide that were in the lab in some stage of the process," said local MADD Representative Ellen Pitt. "We have people who are dying and being injured because of whatever is wrong in our system."
The head of the State Crime Lab in Raleigh says it's a perfect storm that's responsible for the delay in the blood work, including insufficient staffing, a surge in the number of cases, and a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.
"All I can say is there's no one who is more frustrated than myself," said Lab Director Joseph John.
He says right now he has 12 analysts for the whole state and last year 9,300 DWI cases.
"12 into 9,300 doesn't work out very favorably for a prompt disposition of many of the cases," said John.
But John says the biggest impact is the 2009 Supreme Court case Melendez-Diaz versus Massachusetts. Before that case, John says the lab could submit affidavits on blood work. But now analysts based in Raleigh and Greensboro must appear in person.
"All that time is not time spent here in the laboratory doing case analysis," says John. "That's the reason cases get delayed."
Mike Bonfoey is the District Attorney for seven Western North Carolina counties. He understands the crime lab's dilemma, but looks for a local solution.
"If they're cooperative we can have our local hospital labs examine the blood and we're moving towards that here in Haywood County," said Bonfoey.
Pitt likes that idea too and thinks they might make a dent in the DWI back at the State Crime Lab.
John says there is a plan for a Western lab at the Justice Academy in Edneyville that would alleviate much of the delay problem. He says building it is up to the General Assembly.
"We presented that plan. They have it. Its simply a matter of appropriating funding," said John.
John says additional analysts were added in the most recent state budget. Some of them, he says, could be placed in that western lab.
Pitt says it's high time for an intelligent solution. What we're doing now is so ineffective and so costly and there's a human cost, she says.
Bonfoey says Medwest-Haywood is looking over a contract for the hospital to begin DWI blood testing. He says as soon as he gets it, he'll sign it. Blood analysis would start shortly after that.
Meanwhile, the State Crime Lab says its upgraded efficiency through better coordination with courts, mandatory overtime, and better work distribution but still needs more analysts to handle demand.
After a nine-month wait, Kimberly Uptergrove received a two year suspended sentence last week. But must serve 28 days in jail, surrender her license, and remain on probation for two and a half years.
By Rex Hodge
Follow Rex on Twitter @RexHodgeWLOS