New lab allows more training for NM magistrates

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By Sue M. Holmes

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — For the first time this fall, new magistrates will tour the New Mexico Department of Health's Scientific Laboratory, seeing how its toxicology division operates and how it does testing in driving-while-intoxicated cases.

"With the emphasis on DWI and the complexity of drug testing and all the issues that have come down from the Supreme Court, it's thrown the lab in the judges' faces more than it has in the past," said lab director David Mills. "So this is a real good opportunity to help them deal with it."

New Mexico has long been among states with the nation's worst drunken driving problems, ranking 11th in 2008 for the number of DWI fatalities per 100,000 population.

New magistrates elected Nov. 2 will receive two weeks of orientation in late November, and they'll spend one day of that at the Scientific Laboratory in Albuquerque.

The idea of seeing how the lab works "is not to presuppose guilt or innocence ... but to give judges the background so they will understand what they see in court," said Pamela Lambert, director of the Judicial Education Center at the University of New Mexico, which does training for judges.

A tour of the lab's toxicology area will show them, for example, how evidence is processed and its chain of custody, she said.

The center has done training for years for municipal and metro judges, magistrates and district court judges around the state. Staff from the Scientific Laboratory, who often testify in court, have been part of those orientations.

But the lab's move into a larger, modern building in late September opened up other possibilities for the fall magistrates' orientation.

Mills talked to Lambert about using the lab's new training center for the session on DWI. Being onsite would allow a more detailed presentation than in the past, he said.

"We can teach them a little bit more about scientific methods, we can teach them a little bit more about quality assurance," Mills said.

Mills also expects a tour will stimulate more questions than would come from an offsite demonstration of an alcohol breath-test machine.

New Mexico magistrates, who are not required to have law degrees, hear misdemeanor criminal cases, including DWI, and small claims cases such as landlord-tenant disputes. They also conduct preliminary hearings to decide whether to send felony charges to state district court.

Mills and Lambert both hope the magistrate session will lead to later onsite training for judges at other levels of New Mexico's judiciary.

The lab is one of only eight or nine labs run by states that do blood tests for drugs and alcohol for the state, Mills said.

The lab does all blood tests for police departments around New Mexico for drug-impaired driving arrests, he said. It also performs all blood alcohol tests for DWI arrests except for those for the Albuquerque Police Department, whose lab is authorized to run those tests, he said.

Mills said blood alcohol or drug numbers reported in court are arrived at by two separate lab groups using different techniques, and that's one thing he wants to point out to judges.

The training will "give them an idea of what the numbers mean, what do you do with these numbers, how do you interpret them, how do they fit into the case," Mills said.

Lambert said DWI is "a high priority topic" for the Judicial Education Center since drunken driving generates so many court cases. The DWI Resource Center in Albuquerque estimates about 17,000 DWI cases go to court in New Mexico each year.

"Now with the training rooms, it makes sense to take judges to the lab to see this work in progress," Lambert said.