New law could keep police, medics safer
Medical technician Joseph Epp still has pieces of a bullet in his shoulder.
He was wounded 10 years ago by a man police brought to the hospital for a drunken driving blood test who wrestled an officer's gun away. Newtown Officer Brian Gregg was killed and another officer was wounded. The shooter, Robert Flor, remains on Pennsylvania's Death Row.
So Epp wonders why police and medics — especially those in rural or suburban areas — aren't taking advantage of a new state law named for Gregg that allows paramedics to draw suspected drunken drivers' blood for testing when the driver gives consent.
The law encourages blood draws in the controlled environment of police stations rather than often chaotic hospital emergency rooms.
Devil in the details
But legal and procedural questions are largely preventing the law, signed by Gov. Tom Wolf in November, from being used.
Medics in New Kensington and the Pennsylvania State Police say they are waiting for medical protocol to be established.
“So far, no providers have submitted protocols for approval by the Department of Health, as required by the law,” said Nate Wardle, a spokesman for the department's Bureau of Public Health Preparedness.
And his department won't be issuing protocols, either, Wardle said.
“Statewide protocols will not be issued because of potential differences from municipality to municipality on how law enforcement or district attorney's offices may collect and manage evidence.”
Criminal defense attorneys, so far, don't like the law.
“There are a myriad of problems,” attorney Duke George said. “Procedures haven't been set and they need to be to protect the legal rights of the accused. Search warrants would still be required. And there is a two-hour window when blood alcohol levels can be drawn and the police would have to find a magistrate who is familiar with the law and procedures and how to establish probable cause in drunken-driving cases.”
Urban areas are relatively close to hospitals and it seems easier for officers to take people to hospitals for blood draws even if that means officers sometimes spend an hour or more waiting in emergency rooms rather than getting back on patrol.
A good idea, but ...
In the Alle-Kiski Valley, some suburban and rural area police officers said they like the idea because it could get them back on patrol quicker.
“This can certainly help if there is probable cause and consent is given for the draw. If not, and there is reasonable cause, we can detain the person and apply for a search warrant,” said Lower Burrell police Chief Tim Weitzel.
New Kensington Ambulance is ready to assist police with blood draws if requested, said EMS Supervisor Addie Birch. But Birch said a policy needs to be adopted.
State police spokesman Cpl. Adam Reed said the law is a positive development.
“It sounds as if some groundwork will need to be laid out by the district attorney's office and the EMS agencies as far as billing, but we look forward to using any resource that may get our troopers back out on patrol faster,” Reed said.
Some medics in Vandergrift said they didn't know about the option. Some ask if the medic who draws the blood can anticipate being subpoenaed to testify in court.
State Rep. Dom Costa, D-Pittsburgh, knows the answer.
“No. I amended the bill for that reason. Courts can accept police witnessing the blood draws and testify about that. Medics won't be required” to explain that part of the chain of evidence, said Costa, a former Pittsburgh police chief.
Different municipalities could contract with a medic unit to do the draws. Arresting officers would mark the samples and send them to the lab within the time required for that to be done, according to Costa.
“This is potentially life- saving,” Costa said. “At police stations, officers could lock up their handguns, so there won't be a chance for a combative person to grab for it,” he said.
Also, it would be quicker for the suspect, who could have blood drawn at a police station and be released faster to the custody of family, Costa added.
Limited use promising
So far, police say, use of the law is limited to drunken-driving check points in some places and a few communities such as Ben Salem Township in the eastern part of the state.
“We're finding that 47 percent of our suspected driving under the influence cases have drugs involved,” said Ben Salem Township police Chief Fred Harran. The department serves a patrol area that borders Philadelphia.
Harran says the benefits of the law are multifaceted: It's safer than at a hospital, it's quicker, blood tests are required for drugged driver cases and they are more accurate for drunken-driving cases, and it saves money because officers get back on patrol quicker and overtime isn't required.
“For us to take each person to the hospital for a blood draw would take the officer off patrol for three hours on average. This is only 10 minutes,” said Harran, who leads the ninth largest municipal police department in the state.
“If drivers don't consent, the officer applies for a search warrant. If needed, the officer can still file charges based on observation of the driver,” he said.
Chuck Biedka is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4711 or firstname.lastname@example.org.