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Blood tests for DWI cases costing Hancock County

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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 told the Daily Reporter.

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."

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.

When Griffin took office in 2011, an alcohol screen through Hancock Regional Hospital cost $32. The price today has nearly tripled to $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.

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."

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  • Trust?
    Because America has so many confusing laws, and also because cops sometimes make mistakes, it’s harder to assume that as long as you behave yourself,you have nothing to fear. Americans are increasingly distrusting of gov. Our police departments have been losing its citizens trust over the years. I support law and order, and a police force that keeps us safe from the bad guys. A police force, along with the 2nd Amendment, has kept this country safe for generations. However, today’s police are often equipped with military-grade weapons, given from the Pentagon as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan end. Government always grows, and government is force. Force is always dangerous. Cops can’t continue to take a warlike us-versus-them approach to policing the population. Government is reckless, whether it is intruding into our lives with dishonest regulations that destroy a fledgling business or with a flash-bang grenade like the one that critically wounded a child in a recent SWAT raid in Janesville, Georgia. Their tactics of “no-knock” home invasions to catch low-level offenders, or even innocent people who are killed by police when they attempt to defend their home, are reprehensible. Most SWAT raids are now done to arrest nonviolent drug offenders. You don’t need to shoot his dog and crash through his window. I’m not anti cop, but as PD’s lose the trust of its citizens, its only going to encourage increasing measures of beyond a doubt proof to convict. A police officers word in today’s power hungry gov unfortunately doesn’t carry as much weight as it used to, as it shouldn't.
  • Lots of nerve
    How dare juries (purportedly made up of stupid viewers of TV crime drama) expect EVIDENCE that someone is guilty?
  • Poor Prosecutor Whines About Costs
    So, doesn't Hancock County recoup a great deal of money if the alleged drunk driver is indeed intoxicated and operating a motor vehicle over the legal limit? By the time the driver is convicted, he/she is paying a great deal of money in court costs and fines. So why is the prosecutor whining about this? Because he and the judges stand to earn less because their expenses have increased? Or do they need to get the sheriff to kick in some of his pay for this? The fact is, the accused have a right to a fair trail and there are costs involved. This isn't about TV crime dramas, this is about a mistrust of police and poor public image/reputation they too often have in rural counties such has Hancock "Handcuff" county. County residents shouldn't have to foot this bill. Let's recoup that from the court fees and increase the fines for the guilty.
  • It is not TV program that prevent juries believe police
    I would not blame TV as a reason people not believing police. Basically, police will lie and exaggerate the events. Sadly, the most important tool for police, their integrity, is wasted away. (and seat belt/drug "click-it or ticket" slogans don't show much respect for the citizens) 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.
  • Charge a fee
    Why not inform the suspected drunk driver that they can do a breath test for free but if they want the blood test they will be billed for it? Why does the county have to foot the bill as it states in the article? Is it illegal to charge the driver for the blood test?
  • Fee the lawbreaker
    Ok, Getty warrant and take the blood. If the suspect fails then they have to pay a fine to cover it(hint: increase the fine). If he passes, the police, prosecutor, and judge must each hand write an apology.

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