From The New York Times
When Officer Darryll Dowell of the Nampa Police Department is on patrol, he will pull up at a stoplight and start casing the vehicle next to him. Nowadays, his eyes will also focus on the driver’s arms, searching for a plump, bouncy vein.
“I was looking at people’s arms and hands, thinking, ‘I could draw from that,’ ” Officer Dowell said.
The thought stems from training he and a select cadre of officers in Idaho and Texas have received in recent months in drawing blood from people suspected of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol
. The aim of the federal program is to determine if drawing blood by law-enforcement officers can be an effective tool against drunken drivers and aid in their prosecution.
If the results seem promising after a year or two, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will encourage law-enforcement officers nationwide to undergo similar training.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1966 that the police could have blood tests forcibly done on a drunken-driving suspect without a warrant, as long as they were based on a reasonable suspicion that a suspect was intoxicated, and they were done after an arrest and carried out in a medically approved manner.
The practice of law-enforcement officers drawing blood, first done in Arizona in 1995, has raised concerns, though, about safety and the credibility of the evidence.
“I would imagine that a lot of people would be wary of having their blood drawn by an officer on the hood of their police vehicle,” said Steve Oberman, chairman of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ committee on driving while intoxicated.
For years, defense lawyers in Idaho advised clients to always refuse breath tests, Christine Starr, a prosecutor in Ada County, said. When the state toughened the penalties for refusing the tests a few years ago, the problem lessened, but it is still the main reason that drunken-driving cases go to trial in the Boise region, Ms. Starr said.
Idaho had a 20 percent breath test refusal rate in 2005, compared with 22 percent nationally, according to a study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
Ms. Starr said she hoped the new system would cut down on the number of drunken-driving trials.
The officer phlebotomists are generally trained under the same program as other phlebotomists in their state, but under a highly compressed schedule. The officers are trained to take blood from the elbow crease, the forearm and the back of the hand. If none are accessible, they are instructed to take the suspect to a hospital for testing.
Though most legal experts agree that blood tests measure blood alcohol more accurately than breath tests, Mr. Oberman said they could be fraught with problems, too. Vials can be mixed up, preservative levels in the tubes used to collect the blood can be off or the blood can be stored improperly, causing it to ferment and have a higher alcohol content.
Mr. Oberman said law enforcement agencies should also be concerned “about possible malpractice cases over somebody who was not properly trained.”
Alan Haywood, the law enforcement phlebotomy coordinator in Arizona, is directing the training programs in Idaho and Texas. Mr. Haywood said that officers were exposed to some extra on-the-job risk if they drew blood, but that good training and safe practices reduced the concerns.
In Phoenix, Detective Kemp Layden, who oversees drug recognition, phlebotomy and field sobriety, said there were about 120 officers certified to draw blood. Typically, a suspect is brought to a precinct or mobile booking van for the blood draw.
Under the state’s implied consent law, drivers who refuse to voluntarily submit to the test lose their license for a year, so most comply. For the approximately 5 percent who refuse, the officer obtains a search warrant from an on-call judge and the suspect can be restrained if needed to obtain a sample, Detective Layden said.
Between 300 to 400 blood tests are done in an average month in Phoenix, the nation’s fifth-largest city. During holiday months that number can rise to 500, said Detective Layden, who reviews each case to make sure legal procedures were followed.