Bringing it Home: DUI cases could get even more expensive
October 28, 2013
Editor's note: "Bringing it Home" runs Saturdays in The Aspen Times and focuses on state, national or international issues that have ties to or impacts on the Roaring Fork Valley.
Ninth Judicial District Attorney Sherry Caloia has a business tip for those budding entrepreneurs in Colorado: Open up a blood-testing lab.
"This is the perfect opportunity for young tenants to open up a lucrative business, preferably in Grand Junction, because right now we just have two certified labs in the state that we can use for blood tests for DUIs," Caloia said.
She wasn't joking.
On Monday, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment announced the closing of its forensic toxicology lab to blood-alcohol and blood-drug testing services. That means all DUI cases using blood tests as evidence must be outsourced to Colorado's two private certified labs.
The state lab's decision came after the state suspended it in July in the wake of an internal report in March that contended that the lab's supervisor was biased toward prosecutors, and lab workers weren't sufficiently trained.
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The suspension prompted the lab, which stood by its previous testing results that had come under scrutiny, to permanently shut down its blood-testing services.
"We anticipate at least 50 percent of our client base would not return to the state lab for these services," said Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, in a statement Monday. "Once we add the additional staff and maintenance, combined with the loss of revenue from a diminished customer base, we would be operating at an annual loss."
The state lab averaged about 8,000 blood tests for alcohol and drugs a year, which has accounted for about 73 percent of the tests handled in Colorado, according to The Denver Post.
Both of the state's private labs are located on the Front Range, and Caloia said her office has taken its business to Boulder-based ChemaTox Laboratory Inc., which it has been using since the state lab was placed on suspension.
Prosecutors also will have to rely on ChemaTox scientists to be expert witnesses when a DUI case heads to trial. Caloia said she expects it to be more expensive than when the D.A.'s Office relied on the state to testify. She noted that the state closure means Colorado's two private labs will enjoy a boon in business and will increase their costs.
"Their business will go through the roof, and I anticipate some costs will increase," she said.
When a motorist is pulled over on suspicion of DUI, there are three options: Go to the hospital and have blood drawn for testing, submit to a breath test, or refuse testing altogether. The test results can be key evidence that potentially makes or breaks a case.
Caloia said that in the 9th Judicial District — which is comprised of Garfield, Pitkin and Rio Blanco counties — about 70 to 80 percent of DUI suspects submit to a breath test, which provides an immediate result. Those who have their blood drawn get the benefit of having two samples — one blood vial goes to a lab, and the suspect can use the other one for a second test.
While a breath test costs between $10 and $30, blood tests command between $200 and $300. And when a lab witness is brought in to testify at trial about the results of a blood test, the costs can soar into the thousands of dollars, Caloia said.
Carbondale defense attorney John Van Ness, who represents DUI defendants, said Colorado's two private labs are the beneficiaries of the state lab's new direction to not test blood. Taxpayers and defendants, meanwhile, will take the hit, he said. That's because convicted DUI defendants will have to pay the blood-testing costs associated with their arrests, and the law-enforcement agencies and district attorney's offices will absorb the costs when the defendant is cleared of the charge.
"The people of the state of Colorado lose," he said. "When the defense wants to retest or bring in their own lab person, the defense pays twice when they lose. You pay for the prosecution's cost and your cost."
Andre Bryan, the head prosecutor in the Pitkin County branch of the 9th Judicial District Attorney's Office, said she expects a "little bit of disruption short term."
"It's going to be more expensive to send these tests to ChemaTox," she said. "Obviously there will be a big difference to pay."
ChemaTox, however, is not a totally new service to local law enforcement. Pitkin County Undersheriff Ron Ryan said the Sheriff's Office has frequently done business with ChemaTox over the years.
"We do our share of DUIs throughout the years," Ryan said. "But with the number of DUIs between ChemaTox and the state lab, I don't think we're going to see a huge impact."
Caloia, meanwhile, echoed the concerns that came from many prosecutors and defense attorneys when the announcement was made.
"I'm a little concerned, and I'm not happy with the state lab," she said, noting that eventually more private labs will open and blood tests will be competitively priced.