Police Being Trained to Draw Blood from Drunk or Drugged Driving Suspects

Police officers in Idaho and Texas have recently received training to draw blood from those suspected of drunken or drugged driving, and many law enforcement officials believe this practice will deter people from getting behind the wheel when they shouldn’t.

The Associated Press reports that the federal program’s aim is to determine if blood draws can be an effective tool against drunk drivers and aid in their prosecution. If the results seem promising after a year or two, the National Highway Safety and Traffic Administration will encourage police nationwide to undergo similar training.

For years, defense attorneys in Idaho advised clients to always refuse breath tests, Ada County Deputy Prosecutor Christine Starr said. When the state toughened the penalties for refusing the tests a few years ago, the problem lessened, but it's still the main reason that drunk-driving cases go to trial in the Boise region, Starr said. Idaho had a 20 percent breath test refusal rate in 2005, compared with 22 percent nationally, according to an NHTSA study.

Starr hopes the new system will cut down on the number of drunken driving trials. Officers can't hold down a suspect and force them to breath into a tube, she noted, but they can forcefully take blood—a practice that's been upheld by Idaho's Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.

The practice of cops drawing blood, implemented first in 1995 in Arizona, has also raised concerns 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, chair of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' DUI Committee.

The officer phlebotomists are generally trained under the same program as their state's hospital or clinical phlebotomists, but they do it under a highly compressed schedule, and some of the curriculum is cut.

That's because officers don't need to know how to draw blood from a foot or other difficult sites, or from an infant or medically fragile patient, said Nicole Watson, the College of Western Idaho phlebotomy instructor teaching the Idaho officers. Instead, they are trained on the elbow crease, the forearm and the back of the hand. If none are accessible, they'll take the suspect to the hospital for testing.

The officers are making quick progress, Watson said. Their training will be complete after they have logged 75 successful blood draws. Once they're back on patrol, they will draw blood of any suspected drunk driver who refuses a breath test. They'll use force if they need to, such as getting help from another officer to pin down a suspect and potentially strap them down, Watson said.

The Phoenix Police Department only uses blood tests for impaired driving cases. Detective Kemp Layden, who oversees drug recognition, phlebotomy and field sobriety, said the city now has 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, Layden said.

Between 300 and 400 blood tests are done in an average month in the city. During holiday months that number can rise to 500, said Layden, who reviews each case to make sure legal procedures were followed.

Outside of Arizona, some law enforcement agencies in Utah have officer phlebotomists, and police in Dalworthington Gardens, Texas are cross-trained as paramedics and have been drawing blood for about three years. The NHTSA is in talks with Houston, Texas about doing the phlebotomy training there, he said.

They're all attracted by Arizona's anecdotal evidence. "What we found was that the refusal rates of chemical testing lowered significantly since this program began," said Alan Haywood, Arizona's law enforcement phlebotomy coordinator. "Arizona we had about a 20 percent refusal rate in 1995, and today we see about an 8 to 9 percent refusal rate."

Posted on September 14th, 2009
Posted in Drunk Driving

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