Lab blood sam­ple back­log on DUIs de­lays jus­tice

CityPress - - News - SIZWE SAMA YENDE sizwe.yende@city­press.co.za

Peo­ple caught driv­ing un­der the in­flu­ence (DUI) may have a chance of walk­ing free this fes­tive sea­son be­cause lab­o­ra­to­ries are strug­gling to cope with a large back­log of blood sam­ples.

The coun­try’s four foren­sic chem­istry lab­o­ra­to­ries – in Dur­ban, Cape Town, Pre­to­ria and Jo­han­nes­burg – are still strug­gling to an­a­lyse a back­log of 18 969 blood sam­ples taken from al­leged drunken driv­ers from the 2014 fes­tive sea­son, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures from the na­tional health de­part­ment.

Dur­ing last year’s fes­tive sea­son, 48 619 blood sam­ples were sent to the lab­o­ra­to­ries for anal­y­sis, of which only 29 650 have been an­a­lysed so far.

The 2015 sam­ples will pile on the back­log, as more drink-driv­ing ar­rests are ex­pected. The Road Traf­fic Man­age­ment Cor­po­ra­tion (RTMC) says drunken driv­ing ac­counts for 89% of the coun­try’s fa­tal crashes.

In South Africa, the le­gal limit is a breath al­co­hol con­tent of 0.24mg per 1 000ml, or a blood al­co­hol limit of 0.05g per 100ml. For a 68kg per­son, this trans­lates to a max­i­mum of one unit of al­co­hol – two-thirds of a can of beer, 75ml of wine or one tot of whiskey – per hour.

RTMC spokesper­son Si­mon Zwane said: “The de­lay [of pro­cess­ing blood sam­ples] af­fects com­pli­ance neg­a­tively since it con­firms the no­tion that the of­fend­ers can get away with ev­ery­thing and noth­ing will be done to them.

“It also in­creases the per­cep­tion that there is no jus­tice, since peo­ple are not see­ing jus­tice be­ing done.”

Blood al­co­hol re­sults are cru­cial for pros­e­cu­tors and po­lice to se­cure con­vic­tions and harsh sen­tences for drunken driv­ers. But so many un­pro­cessed blood sam­ples frus­trate pros­e­cu­tors be­cause they de­lay tri­als and force mag­is­trates to throw out cases due to lack of ev­i­dence.

Na­tional Prose­cut­ing Author­ity spokesper­son Lu­vuyo Mfaku, how­ever, said with­drawn cases could be re­in­stated when out­stand­ing blood test re­sults came back.

“We do with­draw cases where the blood al­co­hol re­ports have been out­stand­ing for an un­rea­son­able pe­riod. When the re­ports be­come avail­able and the ev­i­dence jus­ti­fies pros­e­cu­tion, sum­monses are then is­sued for the per­son to ap­pear in court,” he said.

Mfaku said the sit­u­a­tion would im­prove with the rein­tro­duc­tion of breathal­yser test­ing.

Na­tional po­lice spokesper­son Bri­gadier Vishnu Naidoo said: “As much as we would want to in­ves­ti­gate cases quicker, we would not want to com­pro­mise qual­ity.

“Cases are taken off the court roll pend­ing re­sults and we re­in­state them when they come back. The de­lay does not have a neg­a­tive im­pact on a case.”

Health de­part­ment spokesper­son Joe Maila said a new lab­o­ra­tory in Dur­ban, which was opened in April, had made a huge dif­fer­ence in re­duc­ing back­logs from the Eastern Cape, which had pre­vi­ously been sent to Cape Town and Pre­to­ria.

“One con­cern is that the vol­ume of cases con­tin­ues to in­crease. While it is good that more peo­ple are be­ing tested, it is of con­cern that there is pos­si­bly an in­crease in the num­ber of peo­ple driv­ing un­der the in­flu­ence of al­co­hol,” said Maila.

He said new equip­ment was in­stalled in the lab­o­ra­to­ries to in­crease the num­ber of spec­i­mens be­ing pro­cessed.

“All the lab­o­ra­to­ries will be op­er­a­tional over De­cem­ber and Jan­uary. The de­part­ment has em­barked on var­i­ous op­er­a­tional ef­fi­cien­cies to in­crease the num­ber of spec­i­mens pro­cessed and to re­duce the back­logs.

“Min­i­mum stan­dards (to ex­pe­dite the pro­cess­ing of sam­ples) have been set and are be­ing fol­lowed,” said Maila.

The Cape Town and Dur­ban lab­o­ra­to­ries, Maila added, had no back­logs and, with the new in­ter­ven­tions, the turn­around time for pro­cess­ing blood al­co­hol tests in the Jo­han­nes­burg and Pre­to­ria lab­o­ra­to­ries was ex­pected to be four weeks.

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