Washington state is facing a major backlog at the state's toxicology lab, which does blood work for suspected DUI drivers.
The backlog is so intense, it’s taking up to eight months for the results to come in. And when those tests are not processed, some of those drivers end up back on the road.
Prosecutors say the current situation is a big public safety risk, and the need for funding is facing an urgent deadline – lawmakers must fit it into the state budget, expected to be finalized this weekend.
Taylor Goehring, 24, was hit and killed while riding her bicycle on Rainier Avenue in December.
Prosecutors say 44-year-old Vern Henderson was behind the wheel and on the drug PCP.
Adding to the pain for Goehring, Henderson was pending trial for an earlier DUI -- accused of his fourth DUI within 10 years.
“He shouldn’t have been able to be on the roads driving like this while he's pending the other case. And that's really what burns for the family,” said Rob Lloyd, the Goehring's family attorney, during the suspect’s arraignment.
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But according to Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Amy Freedheim, who has knowledge about Henderson’s prior case, Seattle prosecutors were waiting on his blood work results.
And while they waited, Henderson was free.
Bloodwork is usually required for drug DUI cases and they all get sent to the Washington State Patrol tox lab.
Prosecutors say drug DUIs are quickly climbing.
“We're seeing an increase because of legalized marijuana, the opioid crisis, poly drug use. So when troopers come across somebody on the road they believe to be impaired, breathalyzer tests aren’t going to do it anymore,” said Luke Larson, a King County deputy prosecutor.
The lab's workload skyrocketed causing a huge backlog that's only become worse since KIRO7 first told you about the problem in 2018.
“We’re seeing a delay of six to eight months before we're getting blood results back on these DUI crimes, and for us that's a big problem. It hampers our ability to file cases,” Larson said.
Henderson’s case is just one example. Prosecutors say because of the backlog, he ended up behind the wheel using drugs when he crashed and took a young mom's life.
“I wonder how many more ‘Verns’ are there driving Washington roads right now we're unaware of,” said Sharon Witson, a friend of Goehring, during Henderson’s arraignment.
Washington State Patrol says it needs about $3 million of additional funding for more employees.
“If we have not done our job illustrating the severity of this problem, then we are trying to do that right this minute,” said Capt. Monica Alexander of the Washington State Patrol.
The problem has law enforcement and prosecutors are making a last minute plea for lawmakers to increase funding for the tox lab -- and keep repeat DUI offenders off the street.
“If this is something that doesn't pass, for us - we don't want to accept this as the new reality. We need this to change,” Larson said.
WA lawmakers have passed a tentative budget -- but details are still being worked out. It’s not clear the tox lab will get the money it needs.
Prosecutors say it's not too late to call your representative.
Details on the state budget are expected to be released on Saturday.
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