Mesa prosecutors plan to ramp up the city’s crime lab processing to handle the skyrocketing numbers of drug DUI arrests, which have doubled since 2009.
The additional arrests have strained police resources, especially because drug cases take longer than alcohol tests for police and lab technicians to process. The city wants to ensure it can obtain results within the 1-year statute of limitations and to ensure suspects get a right to a speedy trail, City Prosecutor Jon Eliason said.
Prosecutors have dismissed some cases while evidence was waiting to be tested, only to reopen the case when results came back. The city wants to improve that, he said.
“Getting the drugs tested is the main hurdle,” Eliason said. “You get that done, and we can file the case in no time.”
Mesa had 1,358 drug DUI cases in 2011, and the numbers have grown 35 percent to 40 percent per year recently.
In response, Mesa will add 20 additional testing hours per month for the next six months with a $17,000 grant from the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.
Drug-impaired driving is a national problem involving illegal substances and prescription medications, Eliason said. He pointed to the role prescription drugs played in the deaths of singer Whitney Houston and actor Keith Ledger as examples of how common drug abuse has become.
“People know you shouldn’t drink and drive — that message is out there,” Eliason said. “But maybe some people think it’s OK to take, say oxycodone, which can impair your ability to drive.”
Police have found more drivers impaired by marijuana after voters approved medical use of the substance in 2010. Patients who meet state qualifications for medical marijuana can grow it legally, and the substance will become more available when the first dispensaries open later this year.
“I think the marijuana is going to keep going up,” Eliason said. “I think the designer drugs and the bath salts, they’re really dangerous and I don’t think we’ve seen the tip of those yet.”
Eliason also attributed Mesa’s growing drug DUI arrests to the police department’s extensive training for drug impairment recognition. The agency’s officers are leaders nationally in making those kinds of arrests, he said.
While the grant for the crime lab is just for six months, Eliason said the city is considering ongoing efforts to improve processing times. Also, the grant will help prosecutors develop a multimedia presentation to explain the drug recognition exam process to jurors in court.
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