KIRO 7 investigates massive backlog in DUI toxicology results

Washington State is struggling to reduce a massive backlog in blood samples needing testing in DUI cases due to a perfect storm of factors.

The combination of growing numbers of case submissions, a growing trend of people using more than one drug while driving, and difficulties in expanding the state’s testing capabilities fast enough in the face of these increases means the average wait time is over a year. And despite the state opening a second lab last year, a KIRO 7 investigation discovered those wait times will not be dropping any time soon.

New video released to KIRO 7 shows a car at the center of a DUI case in Puyallup, where it slammed into Don’s Drive-In as people were eating and working in November.

Jiho Yoon was working as a cook and the hot oil from the fryer splashed across his body, causing third and fourth-degree burns.

“I can feel the pain, every pain,” Yoon said of that moment. “I was just screaming.”

From his home in Federal Way, Yoon described how his neck, chest, and arms were burning. He spent about two months in the hospital.

In the video, you can hear his screams of intense pain as the driver walked up.

“Are you guys okay?” the man asked.

The store’s security video captures someone screaming, “Help! Help!”

“His eyes looked empty,” Brenda Gonzalez said of the suspect. “He was-- he just wasn’t there.”

Gonzalez was working with Yoon that day.

In the video, Gonzalez is seen trying to reach Yoon, who was trapped.

Puyallup Police say the driver was 64-year-old Harold Hurley from Bonney Lake. The video captures him saying, “I’m so sorry.”

The police reports states officers found marijuana and a pipe on him, as well as a joint and a rock of methamphetamine inside the car.

“When someone told you that, what did you think?” reporter Linzi Sheldon asked Yoon.

“It made me very, very angry,” Yoon said through a translator, Paige Lee. Lee is working with Yoon’s attorney, Anthony Marsh, in civil proceedings.

According to WSDOT data, in 2023 there were 748 deadly or serious injury crashes in our state involving alcohol and/or drugs. The numbers have gone up every year for the past five years, from 490 in 2019, and the data doesn’t include minor crashes or simple DUI arrests. All of it is helping create a massive backlog of blood samples needing testing at the Washington State Patrol’s toxicology lab.

The WSP allowed KIRO 7 behind the scenes at its new, second location, in Federal Way, which started doing testing in October and had its official ribbon-cutting in December. Its focus is reducing the backlog.

“What are the current wait times?” reporter Linzi Sheldon asked.

“I believe our current turnaround time is around 370 days,” Toxicology Lab Manager Brian Capron said.

“More than a year,” Sheldon said.

“More than a year,” Capron confirmed.

Capron said one part of the problem is that they continue to see double-digit percentage growth in cases.

“Last year we had over 17,000 cases submitted, which was a 13% increase over 2022,” he said. “It’s early in this year, but it looks like that we’re going to see an increase about the same as last year as well. So, we’re anticipating over 18,000 cases submitted this year.”

Capron said most samples submitted each year, about 60% to 65%, are for DUI cases.

Another issue is the challenge of staffing up the new lab, which currently has six scientists that are authorized for case work. It just hired two scientists and needs to hire four more. Training them can take 12 to 18 months.

“The quality that we require of our scientists, the work that we do, we have to get it 100%, every time,” Capron said. “And so that is going to take time.”

Capron also said people are also using more than one drug at a time.

“When we see multiple drugs in a case, that means that there’s more testing that needs to be performed, which means it takes longer for us to do the testing to review it, and for the report to get out to our user agencies,” he said.

The lab serves law enforcement agencies across all of Washington’s 39 counties.

Amy Freedheim, who leads the felony traffic unit at the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, sees the impact every day.

“The detectives are waiting for the tox report to come in before they send the case to us,” Freedheim said of some cases. “When people are seriously injured or killed and there’s somebody who’s a multiple or a repeat DUI offender, if we have enough evidence of impairment, we will go ahead and file those charges without the toxicology,” she said. “But most of the time, we cannot resolve the case without the toxicology.”

And she understands the demands of the lab first-hand.

“People don’t realize what the tox lab does,” she said. “The toxicology lab not only analyzes the blood for alcohol, for poly drugs, but they also have to come and testify in DUI cases and vehicular assault and vehicular homicide cases. They’re going all over the state and testifying, and that might be a half day out of their day that they’re not being able to analyze cases.”

Capron said only about 250 cases a year get their lab results expedited at the request of prosecutors.

“Everybody can’t ask for every case to be expedited or no cases are expedited,” Freedheim pointed out.

Fortunately, Yoon’s case was one of them, though he is still waiting for the suspect’s trial. It is currently scheduled for June but the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office believes that date is unlikely.

Plenty of others must wait even longer.

“It’s just sad… that it takes that long for justice to be had,” Brenda Gonzalez said.

“How has this affected your life?” reporter Linzi Sheldon asked Yoon.

“I have my own personal goals and the future that I was dreaming about,” Yoon said through the translator. “And I’m not very optimistic that I will be able to achieve those goals.”

Those goals included teaching taekwondo and having his own business. Now, Yoon said, he won’t be able to move the way he used to before. He can’t even lift his right arm to touch his own face.

Still, Yoon said he is so thankful for all the support he’s gotten from his friends and even strangers who have reached out with words of encouragement and donated to his GoFundMe.

He has a message for anyone thinking of drinking or doing drugs and getting behind the wheel.

“I want them to know that this could happen to anybody,” he said. “That it could happen to them. And it could also happen to their loved ones. And it could hurt them like it did to me.”

KIRO 7 asked Capron if he believes toxicology wait times will be less than a year by the end of 2024.

He said he hopes so but can’t guarantee it if cases continue to increase.