Western North Carolina is one step closer to receiving a regional crime lab to help alleviate the number of drunken-driving cases dismissed in court because of a lack of evidence.
Understaffing and a severe backlog of alcohol-blood test submissions in Raleigh keeps prosecutors from being able to settle driving while intoxicated court cases in a timely manner, or even at all.
That’s because DWI offenders who refuse to submit to a Breathalyzer must have their blood drawn and sent to Raleigh. But the results from testing can sometimes take up to a year to come back.
Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Republican from Hendersonville, promised to take action on the issue following a summit last month when local and state officials gathered at the Waynesville Police Department.
Apodaca introduced Senate Bill 3 on Wednesday, which requests state funding of $14 million to build a new lab in Edneyville, just outside Hendersonville. It also asks for $1.9 million to fund 19 staff positions and associated costs at the lab.
Several local agency leaders who have been advocating for a western crime lab for the past 10 years say this is a giant step in the right direction.
Ellen Pitt, MADD representative for Western North Carolina, said she was thrilled to hear a bill was finally drafted and introduced.
She routinely follows DWI cases in the region and is constantly frustrated with the number of those dismissed because of the lack of test results.
District Attorney Mike Bonfoey said he is eager to see what happens next in the legislature, but he knows it will take some time before real action is taken.
“The key to this is to make sure it’s funded and to put the proper personnel up here. Just building a building and not having the proper people is no good, so we’ve still got a long way to go,” he said.
Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed agreed, saying that just because a bill has been introduced does not mean the battle is over. State officials, local governments, law enforcement across the state and taxpayers need to show their support for the bill as well.
During the annual winter N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police conference this week, a unanimous resolution was passed in support of the crime lab.
That’s because it’s not only a problem in Western North Carolina, the issue affects law enforcement statewide. With a local crime lab in Western North Carolina, labs in Raleigh will have more time to focus on DWI cases on the rest of the state.
“If they’re always on the road then obviously they’re not able to be in the lab doing their job,” he said.
Pitt said this issue is the primary goal of the task force and she, Bonfoey and local police chiefs will continue to support the legislation until a western crime lab is built.