Pikesville lab is new tool in fight against drugged drivers

GETTING THERE

December 14, 2009|By Michael Dresser | michael.dresser@baltsun.com

The Maryland State Police opened up its forensics laboratory in Pikesville last week to show off its latest pride and joy - a spanking-new facility devoted entirely to analyzing blood samples from drivers who are suspected of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs other than alcohol.

Police and prosecutors have long struggled with a lack of in-state resources for testing such samples. They have had to send the samples to out-of-state contract labs, which charge heavy fees and have difficulty springing staff members to provide testimony in Maryland trials.

Col. Terrence B. Sheridan, superintendent of the state police, said many prosecutions have fallen by the wayside as a result. Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said prosecutors have been "begging" for such a facility for many years.

But now, with the recent opening of the new lab at its forensics complex, the state police will be able to provide testing for law enforcement agencies throughout the state. That should make it a lot more difficult to skate on a charge of driving while impaired by a substance other than alcohol.

State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen, whose agency helped secure the $159,000 federal grant that paid to equip the lab with its array of sophisticated detection devices, called the opening "a significant step forward in terms of enforcement."

Calvert County Sheriff Mike Evans, president of the state sheriffs' association, said the lab will make the job of local law enforcement easier.

"We'll see more arrests because we know the prosecutions will stick," he said.

Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly said the lack of a lab has been a huge problem for prosecutors.

"We've been losing cases from judges who won't accept anything less than the evidence this lab is going to produce," he said.

Beth Baker, regional administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said that while the prevalence of drunken drivers has decreased 71 percent since 1973, the percentage of drivers under the influence of other drugs - both illegal and available by prescription - has increased.

A survey at Maryland Shock Trauma Center found that among the injured drivers transported there, 15 percent had used alcohol alone. But 51 percent had drugs present in their blood - either in combination with alcohol or alone.

That study might be an outlier in national terms, but it says something about the driving population in Maryland. It doesn't mean that people who tested positive for drugs were intoxicated at the time of the crash, but it does give a hint of the dimensions of the problem. Researchers at the Institutes for Behavior and Health estimate that 20 percent of crashes involve drugged driving.

Ross Lowe, who will head the drug toxicology lab, said the facility will be able to detect a majority of the most common illegal drugs - heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine among them - as well as frequently abused prescription drugs such as Oxycontin and Vicodin. All positive tests will be retested by a different method to confirm the result, he said. He said the lab has received 55 blood samples so far and expects to process 300 to 500 cases a year.

Now that the state has the lab up and running, law enforcement officials are looking for ways to keep it busy.

Cassilly said prosecutors will ask the General Assembly next year - as they have before - to make it easier for police to obtain blood samples after crashes.

"If you don't have a blood sample to test, you don't have anything," he said.

Cassilly said that under current Maryland law, police need a finding of probable cause by a certified "drug recognition expert" to compel a suspect to produce a blood sample. But there is a limited pool of such experts, and they often can't make it to the scene of a crash or to a hospital fast enough to make a determination while the drug is still in the suspect's system. Prosecutors will urge lawmakers to let any police officer certify proper cause. Cassilly said other states use that standard and that it has been accepted by the courts.

"Why do we have to go out of our way to create impediments to prosecution?" he said.

It's a good point. But with the Maryland legislature heavily stacked with defense attorneys on key committees, it could be a while before the drug-testing lab is overwhelmed with samples.

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