BOISE – When police Officer Darryll Dowell is on patrol in the southwestern Idaho city of Nampa, he’ll pull up at a stoplight and usually start casing the vehicle. Nowadays, his eyes will also focus on the driver’s arms, as he tries to search for a plump, bouncy vein.
“I was looking at people’s arms and hands, thinking, ‘I could draw from that,’ ” Dowell said.
It’s all part of training he and a select cadre of officers in Idaho and Texas have received in recent months to draw blood from those suspected of drunken or drugged driving. The federal program’s aim is to determine if blood draws by cops 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 Traffic Safety 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 drunken 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 breathe 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 nation’s highest court ruled in 1966 that police could have blood tests forcibly done on a drunken driving suspect without a warrant, as long as the draw was based on a reasonable suspicion that a suspect was intoxicated, that it was done after an arrest, and it was carried out in a medically approved manner.
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 of those sites is accessible, they’ll take the suspect to the hospital for testing.
In a nondescript Boise office building where the Nampa officers were trained, Dowell scanned his subject and prepared to draw blood. Chase Abston, an officer taking his turn playing a suspect, recoiled a bit, pressing his back deeper into the chair.
Dowell slid a fine-gauge needle into the back of Abston’s hand. Abston, who had been holding his breath, slowly exhaled as his blood began to flow.
All the officers seemed like they’d be more comfortable if their colleagues were wielding sidearms instead of syringes. But halfway through the second day of training, with about 10 venipunctures each under their belts, they relaxed enough to trade barbs alongside needle jabs.
They’re 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.
Though most legal experts agree blood tests measure blood alcohol more accurately than breath tests, Oberman said the tests can 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 boosting the alcohol content.
Oberman said law enforcement agencies should also be concerned “about possible malpractice cases over somebody who was not properly trained.”
Alan Haywood, Arizona’s law enforcement phlebotomy coordinator who is directing the training programs in Idaho and Texas, said officers are exposed to some extra on-the-job risk if they draw blood, but that any concern is mitigated by good training and safe practices.
“If we can’t get the evidence safely, we’re not going to endanger the officers or the public to collect that evidence,” he said.
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