Ohio patrol lab expands, reduces drug case backlog

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – With a larger staff and more space after an expansion, the State Highway Patrol’s crime lab is processing drug evidence more quickly and reducing a backlog that grew to thousands of cases as troopers focused more on crimes such as drug trafficking and had more evidence in need of testing.

The speedup is viewed as good news for prosecutors and other authorities, who were sometimes waiting five months or more for results confirming the types of drugs involved in certain cases.

Col. Paul Pride, who became the patrol’s superintendent last year, called such turnaround times “absolutely unacceptable.”

“The last thing we want to do is arrest (suspects) and then not finish it up and not complete the deal,” Pride said. “We’ve had that happen before.”

The backlog peaked at around 4,600 cases in August 2012, and the average processing time was a little less than five months, according to the patrol. It said the backlog is closer to about 1,500 cases now, with a turnaround time of roughly three months. The agency hopes eventually to shrink that average to less than one month.

The facility, which also includes a toxicology lab that processes thousands more tests annually, handled more than 8,300 drug evidence submissions in 2010. That rose to more than 13,000 last year, much of it marijuana, said Capt. David Dicken, a director at the lab. Most of what comes in has been seized by troopers, but the lab also does some testing for other law enforcement agencies.

Dicken said the lab was so overwhelmed that he and another officer had to rearrange storage spaces on their own to squeeze in more drug evidence.

“These are good problems to have… because we’re making Ohio safer by doing what we’re doing,” Dicken said. “We just want to do it a little quicker.”

To ease the backlog, the patrol added staff at the lab and, using mostly seized assets and grant money, it updated its space and equipment.

It hired a dozen chemists over the past three years, including nine for the drug-testing side, bringing the facility’s current staff to 27, Dicken said.

The facility grew by about one-third in an expansion that was finished late last year and totaled nearly $1.5 million, not including equipment. Supervisors added lab and office space and bought more work stations and new analytical equipment.

Their latest addition, a testing machine that arrived this month, fits nicely with troopers’ efforts to crack down on impaired driving. It will allow analysts to test for more types of drugs, even in extremely small blood samples, lab director Joey Jones said. The testing menu of 10 classes of drugs, including marijuana and generic opiates, could grow to 30, with additions such as prescription painkillers and synthetics, he said.

Lab staff also found ways to shave time off their work. The chemists have switched to a paperless process to record their work, and they’ve partnered with a Circleville court to provide testimony by video link instead of driving there in person. Dicken said the agency would like to expand that idea to other patrol staff and other courts.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien said he has noticed an improvement in the turnaround for both drug and toxicology tests at the patrol lab. And faster results can mean faster prosecutions.

“Any delay is not conducive to moving the case forward through the system,” O’Brien said.

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