Driving Drunk, Or Not?

The results of about 1,000 Warren County DUI cases over five years were called into question Friday.

According to District Attorney Rob Greene, blood testing performed at Warren General Hospital starting Oct. 30, 2008, used plasma or serum rather than whole blood. According to Greene, “results for plasma/serum testing are scientifically considered to be up to .05 points lower than the reported value.”

For example, if a plasma test shows a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .12, the actual value might be as low as .07 – and below the legal limit for intoxication of .08. Chief Technologist John Graves at Warren General’s lab explained why serum tests show a higher percentage of alcohol.

“Alcohol is water soluble,” he said. “When you’re testing alcohol, the more liquid you have, the higher your alcohol will be.” Because the solid portion of the blood – mostly red blood cells – is removed from serum, there is more liquid in it, he said. In whole blood, which contains the red blood cells, “You’ll have a little bit lower alcohol value.”

An equipment change drove the 2008 change in testing, Graves said.

Greene said it is possible that BAC evidence from plasma/serum sources was entered as whole blood information in some DUI cases.

“I am very disturbed by this discovery,” Green said in a Friday press release.

Greene said he is taking immediate action “to review all of the county’s DUI cases during the five years in question.”

“At this point, the office is unsure how many cases are affected, but estimates that approximately 1,000 cases are subject to review,” he wrote. “My office is currently compiling the cases and reviewing the law to ensure that we take all of the appropriate steps to ensure justice. We are taking this situation very seriously and we are committed to doing the right thing under the law.”

Greene, who was sworn in as district attorney in January, said he discovered the problem on May 12 while he was observing a trial and heard the testimony of a laboratory technician from Warren General.

“Upon further investigation, the district attorney’s office found a letter dated October 2008 in which Warren General Hospital notified the (district attorney’s) office that it changed the testing of blood for alcohol content from whole blood to plasma/serum blood,” Greene wrote.

Graves confirmed that Warren General sent a letter explaining the change.

“However, while the change was made in the testing, the individually written reports provided to the district attorney’s office did not indicate the method of testing used to provide the BAC value and it is possible that cases were tried with the BAC submitted into evidence as a whole blood calculation,” Greene said. “Once the DUI cases in question are compiled” and a “review of the law is completed, the office will notify the defendants whose case has been affected.”

Former District Attorney Ross McKeirnan, who was in office in 2008, said Friday evening he had been unaware of Greene’s press release and that he would attempt to gather more information before commenting.

After reading the release, McKeirnan said, “I’m retired. Lose my phone number.”

Greene said he will work with victim advocate groups and service organizations to contact victims who could be impacted by the review of the cases.

“Because of the potentially daunting task of reviewing so many cases, Greene has asked for and will receive assistance through the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association,” according to the press release.

Greene said Friday he had no comment other than the press release.