Local News

Saturday, Mar 29 2014 08:00 PM

Long waits for police toxicology reports common

BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

On March 8, a motorist driving south on Gosford Road lost control of his car as he crossed Stockdale Highway, struck the raised center divider and vaulted into the northbound lanes, where his car slammed into the driver's side door of an SUV.

The SUV's driver, David Aggio, was killed immediately. The driver of the car, 22-year-old Rodolfo Contreras, is believed to have been driving under the influence of drugs.

But while the family of Aggio, a 54-year-old father of two, continues to mourn, Contreras is free pending the results of a toxicology report.

Why?

Because toxicology results take time. A breath test gives an immediate result, but testing for alcohol in the blood usually takes a couple weeks. And breath tests can't be done on a person suspected of driving under the influence of drugs; the blood test is necessary to determine what drugs are in the person's system.

Even if people are suspected of having just alcohol and not drugs in their system, they can opt for a blood test instead of a breath test. If the suspect refuses altogether, the arresting officer can get a warrant authorizing the seizure of the blood, even using reasonable force to obtain it.

The Department of Motor Vehicles takes away driver's licenses of people who refuse to take a chemical test for at least one year.

Kern County Assistant District Attorney Scott Spielman said the county's crime lab is generally able to return blood test results within two weeks.

"We try to do it in time to reach statutory requirements for speedy preliminary hearing motions," Spielman said.

It's important, however, that the tests be conducted relatively soon. Spielman said warmer temperatures can deteriorate detection in some samples, and even refrigeration cannot prevent deterioration over extended periods. A low amount of a sample can also make testing difficult.

They test for alcohol and the popular "street-level" drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and PCP. They outsource to other labs if they need to test for opiates and other "non-street level" drugs, but Spielman said they hope to be able to test for opiates within the next couple weeks.

Employers are often able to send a prospective employee to get drug-tested and receive the results back within a couple days. That's not possible with the county's crime lab because of the sheer volume of cases they get and because the tests need to not just detect the presence of alcohol or drugs, but quantify the amount.

There are approximately 2,500 tests for alcohol conducted by Kern's crime lab each year, and 3,500 for drugs. Between 200 to 300 cases are outsourced each year, primarily for drugs.

"New and changing drugs can be difficult to test for and we often have to outsource that testing," Spielman said. "The problem is the changing chemical makeup of the drug, which requires constantly updated testing."

A Bachelor of Science degree, training and competency on instruments and procedures are among the requirement for Kern's blood analysts.

According to Bruce Houlihan, president of the California Association of Crime Laboratory Directors, Kern's numbers regarding how long it takes for results to be returned are in line with county crime labs across the state. He said alcohol analysis typically takes one to two weeks, and any kind of toxicology can push it back to a month or more.

The length of time depends on whether one drug or multiple drugs are being tested for, whether it's street-level or prescription drugs, whether it's a combination of drugs and alcohol, and other factors.

Houlihan is director of the Orange County Crime Lab, which tests about 15,000 alcohol samples a year. That sort of caseload necessitates taking a couple weeks.

"If I was to shut down everything and take one sample in, I could get it out in a day," he said.

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