Increased ‘drugged driving' prompts new needs at Houston Crime Lab

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - A crackdown on impaired driving revealed a new trend on Houston streets and is prompting officials with the Houston Forensic Science Center to look for funding for new equipment.

“They are arresting more people, so that means more requests for us,” said Dr. Peter Stout, president and CEO of the center.

Stout said the number of suspected impaired driving cases requiring testing for drugs and alcohol in a person’s system jumped from 2,000 in 2014 to 5,000 in 2018. Stout said results from these tests reveal a shift in what exactly is impairing drivers.

“Negative for alcohol, more and more of those are positive for drugs,” Stout said.

In fact, the number of cases negative for alcohol but positive for drugs jumped from about 200 in 2014 to more than 1,200 in 2018; that includes everything from street drugs to pharmaceuticals.

“There's more, what we refer to as polypharmacy cases, there's multiple drugs that are involved,” Stout said.

Stout said if a person’s blood tests positive for alcohol, no further testing is needed, since those results are enough for prosecutors to move forward with a criminal case. If the lab gets a negative result, then the sample is screened for drugs.

The growing number of cases negative for alcohol but positive for drugs is presenting a problem for the crime lab. The machines used to detect drugs in a person's system are showing their age.

“It's old, 5 to 10 years. It's not really where we'd like to be,” Stout said.

Stout said the machines routinely go down for maintenance. A recent operational report from the center shows in the last three months, machines have been down on 62 days. Stout also said the sensitivity of the current machines leads to difficulty in detecting certain drugs, unless those drugs are present at very high levels.

“I'm sure there are some fentanyl cases, there are some carisoprodol cases out there that we are not seeing,” Stout said.

All of this means more cases have to be outsourced to ensure impaired drivers don't slip through the cracks. That, in turn, leads to longer turnaround times for results. In short, the center needs new equipment.

Stout said he is already in talks with both city and state officials to try to find grants that can help pay for new machines. Stout said new machines can cost up to $500,000 each.

“Any place I can seek grant funding to help this, any other place I can seek to help get funding to get this equipment there,” Stout said.

In the interim, Stout said the center is leasing a new machine, but he hopes to purchase new ones before the lab moves into its new building in October.

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