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Sunday, March 3, 2024
March 3, 2024

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New WA lab could mean quicker justice for DUI cases, safer roads

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FEDERAL WAY — It takes an average 343 days — almost a full year — to turn around a blood test in suspected DUI cases in Washington, a far cry from the two- to three-month timeline of a decade ago.

In turn, cases drag on, clogging courts and delaying both consequences and exonerations while leaving possibly dangerous drivers on the road.

On Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee commemorated the opening of a lab in Federal Way intended to accelerate testing by creating space for more staff and equipment. It’s taken years to get to this point and could take another year or more for the results to show themselves as new scientists are hired and trained.

Still, for those in the legal system, it’s a welcome development after years of frustration.

“The quick turnaround of toxicology results has the potential to make our roads safer because defendants will have quicker consequences for their actions,” said Amy Freedheim, head of the Felony Traffic Unit in the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

Until Thursday’s opening, blood tests from around the state have been filtered through the toxicology lab in Seattle. Ten years ago, the typical turnaround was between 60 and 90 days, said Chris Loftis, spokesperson for Washington State Patrol. Since 2020, the timeline has climbed rapidly.

Staffing woes have come as requests for toxicology analyses jumped 45% in the last decade. Seattle’s lab is set to receive more than 17,000 submissions this year, a 13% increase from the year before.

“There’s a tension between demand and capacity,” Loftis said. “Our state is growing as far as population. Unfortunately, we’ve had 10 years of behavioral changes as well. There are more people driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and each one of those cases has to go through the system.”

The new lab cost around $4.5 million to build. Tucked into an office complex, it’s a brightly lit space with rumbling HVAC systems looming overhead. It began performing tests in October with about two-thirds of them for DUI cases and the other third for death investigations such as for overdoses, traffic fatalities or homicides.

Not every court case needs a blood report, but many do. At the misdemeanor level, in district and municipal courts, prosecutors are loath to take a case to trial without it, said Freedheim.

In felony cases, the offenses are more severe and may include hit and runs or manslaughter, but blood results are still viewed as important evidence.

Lagging toxicology reports often mean prosecutors will delay filing a case, said Freedheim. If they do file, defendants can invoke their right to a speedy trial and force a trial without the results.

But when prosecutors don’t file right away, the defendant, who might have been barred from driving, may stay on the road.

The highest profile example of the delays was Geno Smith, quarterback for the Seahawks. His case lingered for a year and a half after he was arrested for a suspected DUI in January 2022. His blood work finally came back in August 2023 showing he was below the legal limit, and prosecutors declined to file charges.

“It brings about accountability a family wants to see happen, and it brings about closure,” said State Patrol Chief John Batiste. “And it sends the message to offenders and potential offenders: ‘Thou shall not.’”

The new lab opens as lawmakers at every level struggle with a staggering number of traffic deaths, many of which involve drugs, alcohol or both. Washington recorded more than 740 traffic deaths last year, the most since 1990. Half of the deaths involved an impaired driver, according to data from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. That’s the highest proportion in at least the last five years.

An increasing number of traffic deaths involve drivers who have used both alcohol and drugs — more than those who used alcohol or drugs alone. Elizabeth Goff, division commander of the lab, said alcohol and marijuana are the most common combinations, but fentanyl and methamphetamine are on the rise as well.

Freedheim said this new reality of “polydrug” use makes blood testing more important.

“It’s not just alcohol, where you can do a breath test,” she said. “You have to test blood for drugs.”

The State Patrol hopes to have the lab fully staffed by early 2024.

With 2023 on pace to match 2022’s death toll, lawmakers will likely again consider lowering the state’s legal blood alcohol limit from 0.08 to 0.05. The state Traffic Safety Commission recommended the lower limit, and the National Transportation Safety Board has endorsed states making the change. Utah was the first, and so far only, state to do so.

During the last legislative session, a similar proposal initially seemed to gain traction but stalled in committee.

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