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Backlog At State Lab Stalls Criminal Cases

Huge Demand For Tests Also Delays Insurance Claims, OWI's

Attorney Tracey Wood Commenting

Wisconsin State Journal, Sunday, May 12, 2002
Patricia Simms Health reporter

A growing backlog at the state public health laboratory is stalling criminal cases and snarling insurance claims across Wisconsin.

Some toxicology tests are stalled at the state Laboratory of Hygiene for as long as four months, toxicology supervisor Laura Liddicoat said.

The backlog is delaying or even derailing impaired driving cases, attorneys say. And Dane County Coroner John Stanley says families may have to wait for coroners to declare a cause of death, holding up insurance claims and probate.

The budget repair bill pending in the Legislature would provide emergency staffing at the lab in a crisis, but that won't address some other trends:

* Police and attorneys are more often seeking blood tests, rather than breath tests, in drunken driving cases. After a 1997 legal challenge to breath testing, police started to switch to blood tests, which have proved to be cheaper and more practical for police, Liddicoat said.

* Staff chemists are putting in more hours testifying in court. Dane County Deputy Coroner Gary Moore said he's seen lab staffers wait in the hallways of the City-County Building for hours for their turn to testify.

* Last fall's anthrax scare reverberates. "We are still seeing 5 to 10 anthrax specimens a week," said lab director Ronald Laessig. "We anticipate this will continue. The theory is another anthrax event will occur, and we expect to be on 24-7 operation again."

Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard said the basic alcohol blood work is usually done in a week. "The delay we see is on the screens for prescription drugs," he said. "The delay for that is somewhat substantial. For our clocks, that can be a real challenge."

Blanchard said there have been times when a trial will have to be delayed because of a backup in the hygiene lab.

Defense lawyers say the same thing.

"In cases of alleged 'operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of a controlled substance or combination of controlled substance and alcohol,' there can be a wait of six months or more," said Madison criminal defense attorney Tracey Wood.

"That puts a huge stress on the system because cases are dismissed and then recharged when the test results come back," Wood said. "By that time, memories have faded regarding the incident, and the case is a lot tougher for both the prosecution and defense. There's also the chance that the case can get lost in the shuffle and never be prosecuted."

Wisconsin's public health laboratory is not alone. Across the country, public health labs were experiencing delays even before anthrax testing increased.

"In general, there are long delays in forensic toxicology tests from most, if not all, state laboratories," said Ralph Timperi , director of the State Laboratory Institute in Massachusetts.

"The general problem is that demand for testing has increased exponentially as technology has made more and more tools available to aid both prosecution and defense positions."

Testing is more often used to determine the truth of facts in court, Timperi said. "And the test methods have become more complex, which increases the time, staff expertise required and cost of doing the test. ... So there are more tests available, testing is used more frequently and testing methods are more expensive. These factors have increased costs significantly, while state funding for this testing has in general been level or reduced."

In Wisconsin, the hygiene lab provides free alcohol and drug testing in traffic-related incidents. But that's less than 5 percent of the testing done, said Laessig, the lab director. The lab also tests for everything from water quality and mold to chemicals in the workplace.

State crime labs in Madison and Milwaukee do tests in most felony cases. Private labs will test a variety of substances for a fee.

The state hygiene lab, with about 350 employees, also serves Wisconsin's county coroners.

"The backlog is a problem for us because we can't rule on deaths," said Stanley, the Dane County coroner. "There are all kinds of legal issues that can't be dealt with because the death certificate is pending."

Workloads at state public health labs mushroomed after last fall's terrorist attacks. "I know they had all been working through backlogs throughout the winter," said Scott Becker, director of the Association of State Public Health Laboratories.

Anthrax edges out other activities. "We are chronically short-staffed or understaffed," Laessig said. "When there is an extraordinary event such as the anthrax outbreak, it places tremendous strain on the system."

Laessig said the lab can just do so much. "But it isn't as simple as putting on more staff."

Drug testing is complicated. "Alcohol tests are straightforward," he said. "The paperwork takes longer than the testing, quite frankly. But drug testing is a whole different matter. Drug testing takes time."

If an initial screen finds drugs, which happens about 60 percent of the time, then the chemist must hunt for specifics, he said. "By the time you get all that done, you are looking at long turnaround times -- and it gets worse as our chemists have to go out to court to testify," Laessig said.

The lab takes each sample as it comes in, without prioritizing, Laessig said. After screening, tests to identify specific drugs are scheduled on a rotating basis -- blood samples wait their turn, he said.

It can take a while. "The drug testing process ... is designed to detect literally hundreds of drug substances ranging from over-the-counter medications to prescription medicines and illicit drugs," toxicology supervisor Liddicoat said. "When the screening tests are negative, the turnaround time averages 5 to 10 working days."

But when drugs are found, "the time to complete can range from seven to 80 working days, depending on the number of drugs found, with an average time of 10 to 40 days," she said.

Moore, the Dane County deputy coroner, said that's a problem. "The lab is very important in the chain for us," he said. "They slow us down, and we're not happy with it."

Reprinted by permission of Wisconsin State Journal, Madison, WI

Related Topics:
Wisconsin Drunk Driving Law | OWI DUI What To Expect