4 Investigates: New Mexico’s Secret DWI Kit Backlog
November 21, 2018 10:23 PM
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - For two years, turnover and a high number of vacancies at the New Mexico Scientific Laboratories Division have created a backlog of unprocessed DWI kits, causing delays in prosecution and dismissed cases.
“It's alarming,” said Linda Atkinson, executive director of the DWI Resource Center. “It's frustrating.”
In New Mexico, once a suspected impaired driver is charged with a felony crime, law enforcement can draw blood and send that blood sample to the New Mexico Scientific Laboratories Division (SLD) to test for blood alcohol content (BAC) and drugs.
“It's taking longer to get results for blood tests, especially related to DWI cases,” said John Sugg, the district attorney in Otero, Lincoln Counties. “If we don't have those labs back in 45 days, sometimes we have to dismiss that case.”
Sugg has seen the delays become dangerous in his community. He uses the case of Jerry Lester as an example. Online court records show Lester was charged with his 5th DWI in May 2018. Law enforcement drew blood and sent it to SLD to be tested. Sugg tried to convince a judge that Lester posed a threat to the community and he should be detained until his trial. But Sugg didn’t have crucial scientific evidence from SLD that would have shown Lester’s BAC was a 0.29, more than three times the legal driving limit.
“That would have bolstered our argument to the district court judge,” Sugg said. “Our motion to detain was denied. The individual was released back in to the community; he picked up another DWI with a car crash where somebody was injured.”
It hasn’t always been this way
Internal reports from SLD show in the first quarter of 2016, SLD was able to process 93 percent of the DWI kits it received within 15 days. Fifteen days is the goal. Then over the following two years, that percentage dropped to a 5 percent completion in 15 days.
Law enforcement agencies around the state report massive wait times. Data from the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office shows it has been waiting for scientific evidence from SLD for nine months, although a spokesperson for SLD disputes that. A New Mexico State Police spokesperson reports it has taken up to eight months to receive critical scientific evidence.
“We are looking at about four months, on average, from when the law enforcement officer will send off anything that needs testing and we get results back,” said Rick Tedrow, the district attorney in San Juan County. “That four-month delay is a delay in the judicial system.”
Both Tedrow and Sugg agree that the delays at SLD put New Mexico’s public safety at risk.
“Every one of these cases where we have an offender who is pending adjudication, where we are waiting for a lab, is one of those offenders who can get back in a car and have another family wiped out by a drunk driver,” Sugg said.
For Atkinson, who has spent the last 30 years fighting to reduce DWIs in New Mexico, the news of SLD’s delays is heartbreaking.
“These are the pieces in the DWI puzzle that a lot of people don't understand,” Atkinson said. “In order to move a case forward, you need this evidence. The officers have done their job, prosecutors are ready to do their job, but that piece from the scientific labs is absent.”
KOB’s 4 Investigates Team discovered the problem comes down to high turnover and a high number of vacant positions at SLD. Through an open records request, 4 Investigates obtained SLD’s vacancy list that shows critical sections of the lab significantly understaffed. In the drug screening section, four out of nine positions were vacant. In the breath alcohol section, every position was listed as unfilled. And the list shows only one person working in the drug confirmation section.
“To not have the technicians they need reflects bad management,” Atkinson said.
Lixia Liu, Ph.D. has been the director of SLD since 2015. She took over management of the division months before the numbers nosedived.
“For the number of staff we have, we couldn't keep up,” Liu admitted. “During those two years, it coincided with a time when the state revenue is also declining.”
Liu argued that in the last several years, Governor Susana Martinez and the New Mexico Legislature slashed state spending and froze positions. Liu said those actions negatively impacted SLD. But in the last year, state revenue has increased and new money has become available to hire critical positions.
“What are you doing to make sure that once people come to work here, they stay and work here?” KOB 4 Investigator asked Liu.
“So far, we are looking actively to do an analysis of our staff salaries. That is a starting point,” she responded.
Lui added that they recruit college graduates, but asserted that they often take higher paying jobs elsewhere once they get training and experience.
“Do you think that because SLD can't turn around scientific evidence in a timely manner, that puts public safety at risk?” Ramirez asked.
“I'm not sure on that part,” Liu responded.
Sugg, Tedrow and Atkinson strongly believe that failures at SLD are putting public safety at risk. After all, the work done at SLD means the difference between a DWI offender being held accountable or getting behind the wheel again.
Liu stated that SLD has been actively hiring and intends to have many positions filled in the coming months.
Updated: November 21, 2018 10:23 PM
Created: November 21, 2018 12:39 PM
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