New blood-alcohol testing machines will lead to more guilty pleas in drunken driving cases and put Mecklenburg’s system on par with the rest of the state, officials said.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police in July installed two new breath-test instruments at department headquarters downtown, enabling them to test suspects’ blood-alcohol content before booking them into the Mecklenburg County jail, said Sgt. David Sloan of the Major Crash Investigation Unit.
“Officers are able to get more accurate test results, which in turn leads to less trials,” Sloan said.
About 1,600 people were arrested on driving while impaired charges in Mecklenburg County in 2012, Sloan said. That number is lower than the past average of about 2,300 annual DWI arrests, he said.
Now when a Charlotte driver is arrested on a DWI charge, officers can administer a breath test, on average, within 30 minutes.
In the past, police had to take DWI suspects to the jail to be fingerprinted, booked and checked by a nurse before police could read them their rights and ask them to blow into a Breathalyzer.
Officers often waited between an hour-and-a-half to two hours to test a suspect, CMPD officials said. That lengthy wait increased the chances the person’s blood-alcohol content would drop, and the likelihood that the driver could successfully contest the DWI charge in court.
For example, someone who blew a 0.11, just above the legal limit, after being stopped on the street would blow a .07 or .08 back at the jail, Detective Steve Williams said. The law says the result from the second breath test is the one that counts in court.
DWI suspects who test right at the legal limit are more likely to contest their charges and go to court, said Ike Avery, traffic safety resource prosecutor with the North Carolina Conference of Prosecutors.
And even though under state law a .08 reading is enough to find someone guilty of DWI, sometimes those drivers are still able to argue for a successful dismissal of their charges, Sloan said.
“Now it’s a lot easier than having to go through the jail process,” the traffic sergeant said. Mecklenburg County Assistant District Attorney Bruce Lillie said he hasn’t seen any trends yet but expects the new process to increase guilty pleas.
“I’m certain it will have a positive affect,” Lillie said. “The question is just how significant it’s going to be.”
The layout at the Mecklenburg County jail downtown and rules requiring all suspects to be booked before moving into the more secure areas necessitated the old DWI testing procedures, officials said.
Mecklenburg was the only county in the state that waited to test suspects after booking, Avery said.
“Usually the test is done prior to taking them through the jail process,” Avery said. “It is always better to test quicker to get a result that’s close to what was in their system at the time they were driving.”
The Major Crash Investigations Unit had been working for about a year to get approval from the state Forensics Test for Alcohol branch, an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services, to install the instruments at CMPD headquarters. When that happened, Sloan said, he also obtained approval from police Chief Rodney Monroe, the Mecklenburg County district attorney and the head district court judge.
Because the breath tests are so much more accessible now, more officers are willing to go through the necessary certification to administer the tests, officials said.
“There are probably close to 200 officers now certified,” Sloan said.
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