The clock starts ticking when police pull over a suspected impaired driver.
Minutes add up as officers conduct field sobriety tests, make arrests and transport the suspects to jail.
Driving under the influence is Nevada’s leading cause of serious and fatal crashes, state officials report. But time can hinder the prosecution of an intoxicated driver.
State law gives police a two-hour window to collect a blood or breath sample from a suspect if they want it used as evidence in a DUI case, Las Vegas defense attorney Thomas Moskal said. Otherwise, an expert witness is needed to help prove the suspect was intoxicated when they were behind the wheel.
“All of that is just too resource intensive for the misdemeanor arrest and prosecution,” said Moskal, a former Clark County prosecutor.
Nevada’s largest law enforcement agency will soon expand a program to ensure officers beat the clock.
Starting in October, medical professionals will patrol with the Metropolitan Police Department seven nights a week to collect blood samples at traffic stops, rather than wait until a suspect is taken to jail.
Phlebotomists started riding with officers in late 2018 as volunteers. The position became paid two years later, as part of $250,000 in grant funding from the Nevada Office of Traffic Safety. They now work 10-hour shifts every weekend and on holidays.
Blood tests are the norm at Metro because they measure the presence of both drugs and alcohol, traffic bureau Lt. Bret Ficklin said.
“People need to understand that DUI goes beyond just driving drunk,” he said. “We’ve seen an uptick in a combination of alcohol and marijuana.”
The phlebotomists’ skills are in biggest demand during Metro’s proactive “DUI blitz” events. The approach has been more successful than setting up stationary checkpoints, Ficklin said.
During one such event in April, Ashley Webber-Gamboa donned her scrubs and hopped into the passenger seat of an unmarked black SUV filled with forensics equipment.
As officers fanned out from the Spring Valley Area Command, she and Sgt. David Stoddard waited for their first call of the evening.
About an hour later, Stoddard pulled the SUV into a cul-de-sac near the intersection of Decatur Boulevard and Twain Avenue. He pulled a metal folding chair from the trunk as Webber-Gamboa slipped on a pair of black gloves.
Camryn Grant was already in handcuffs. Officers said they had seen her speeding in a silver Honda Civic before following her down the residential street.
Grant, 24, told police she and her friends were headed from a beach club on the Strip, according to the department. She agreed to have her blood drawn after taking a field sobriety test.
Webber-Gamboa wrapped an elastic band around Grant’s arm, extracting a small vial of blood within a few minutes. Officers arrested Grant on suspicion of DUI and shuttled her blood sample to a refrigerated vault until it could be tested.
During the busiest blitz operations, Webber-Gamboa said she can make almost 20 blood draws. The work is more fast-paced than the at-home services she provides medical patients during the day, but she believes both jobs are providing vital services to Las Vegas.
“With the DUI program, we’re also helping save someone else’s life,” said Webber-Gamboa, who owns Sunrise Pathology Services.
Suspects can still choose to have their blood drawn at the jail. If they refuse altogether, officers can get a warrant from an on-call judge to forcibly make a draw.
Stoddard said the blitzes are designed to not only catch impaired drivers but also train patrol officers to better conduct DUI investigations.
That includes spotting immediate signs of impairment, filling out paperwork and conducting various field sobriety tests. Officers track how suspects complete the test tasks and how well they remember instructions.
Metro leaders believe the more confident patrol officers are at making impaired driving arrests the less they’ll rely on specialized traffic officers for assistance, Stoddard said.
The department received a $545,000 grant in June to expand the phlebotomist program to seven nights a week. The money will also pay for a new, specially outfitted van for the blood draws.
Overall, officers participating in the April blitz made more than 100 traffic stops, issued dozens of citations and arrested 13 people on DUI charges.
“The key to this is numbers,” he said. “The more people you encounter, the more chance you have catching someone DUI.”