LAS VEGAS (FOX5) -- Nevada is just one of only two states in the country that does not have a state-run toxicology lab. That means evidence for thousands of criminal cases falls on just a few local labs.
FOX5 looked into a new push to create a state-run lab.
Currently only two agencies, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police and the Washoe County Sheriff’s office, handle the majority of the toxicology reports for agencies across the state.
The Henderson Police Department gave a tour of their lab, but due to its size, it does not take on many cases outside city limits.
When a potential drunk driver is pulled over, arrested, and their blood is drawn, law enforcement sends it off to a lab. That’s when the clock starts ticking.
“You know sometimes, being able to analyze blood in a timely manner isn’t the highest priority,” said former Clark County District Attorney David Roger.
“It has always been an issue,” he said. “These labs are burdened. It doesn’t mean that justice is denied. Justice is certainly delayed.”
During his time as D.A., Roger dealt with a continuous backlog of untested blood work.
Felony cases take priority.
“Because we know the case is going to court, we know the prosecutor has to get the results to be able to properly charge the case in a complaint,” said Roger. “And then the court has to see the results in order to continue to detain the individual.”
In most felony cases, results come back in just a few days. But when it comes to misdemeanors, Roger said it’s not unheard of to wait nine months.
“For an individual who believes his or her blood alcohol content (BAC) is going to be below 0.08, that they're not guilty of a crime, they're life is on hold until the case is resolved,” said Roger. “They're on ice waiting. For victims of DUIs, they want the case to start moving through the process.”
Roger knows firsthand, getting those results are critical to any case.
“Delays in getting results, delays in the criminal justice process create frustrations for everybody,” said Roger.
“Here in Henderson, we test every DUI sample that comes in for both blood alcohol and drugs regardless of the blood alcohol concentration,” said Timothy Fassette. Fassette is the Senior Forensic Toxicologist at the Henderson Police Department’s crime lab.
Henderson police get around 800 requests each year.
“We’ve been able to track different trends that we’ve seen,” Fassette said.” We’ve been able to see different emerging drugs that are coming onto the scene that a lot of other labs in Nevada and throughout the country cannot test for.”
In Nevada, labs only need to test the BAC for a DUI case. That means once a sample comes back above the legal limit that’s enough evidence to move forward.
“A case comes in, a fatality happened, what we’ll do is run the blood alcohol on that first,” said Fassette. “Then we’ll send out a report right away so that they’ll have some result for that.”
Henderson police take it a step further. They test each sample for about 100 other common drugs.
“Currently what we see is anywhere between 55 to 75% of the cases each month with BAC over 0.08 actually have drugs in their system,” said Fassette.
Those results can help prosecutors bolster their cases.
“We’re actually seeing a 30% drop in the cases that are being pleaded down,” he said. “Now when they have that same data with the 0.1 BAC, and they also have marijuana, cocaine or methamphetamine on them, they’re less likely to plea that case down because of all the other impairing substances which we’re finding in these cases.”
In Henderson, it’s just a small team of three people doing all of this work.
“Right now, it’s just a matter of numbers,” said Fassette. “We can’t really take any more cases than we have currently. It wouldn’t be beneficial for us or for them to take on the extra casework and push out these time frames. Instead of one month to three months, six months - then you’re not doing the job of keeping the streets in Henderson safe.”
Could a state-run lab be part of the solution? Roger said it would take a lot of funding and coordination from the state to do it right.
State leaders are currently looking at examples of successful labs in nearby states, including Washington, Arizona and Utah.