Department of Health says lack of blood testing kits due to hurricanes

Prosecutors scramble to build case without critical evidence

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A spokesman with the New Mexico Department of Health said this week that a lack of blood-alcohol testing kits used to gather crucial evidence in drunk driving-related events throughout Northern New Mexico is due to delays caused by the recent battery of hurricanes in the South and Southeastern United States.

"We take seriously our role to supply blood alcohol collection kits to law enforcement throughout the state," Paul Rhien, the Department of Health's communications director, said in a prepared statement. "Due to shortages caused by recent hurricanes, the iodine pads in these kits were on backorder by suppliers across the country."

Rhien said that the iodine pads came in late last week and that "all orders for blood alcohol kits have been fulfilled and shipped out."

But that may be too little, too late for certain cases that now lack a crucial piece of admissible evidence, notably a felony Taos County court case stemming from a Sept. 30 car crash, in which 21-year-old Bakersfield, California, resident Juan Espinoza allegedly crashed head-on into another vehicle traveling along State Road 68, killing two people and critically injuring one other.

Espinoza was charged with multiple counts of homicide by vehicle for reckless driving and being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, third- and second-degree felonies, respectively. The case may be difficult to prosecute due to a lack of an accurate blood-alcohol reading following the crash.

Initially, evidence that the defendant had been drinking before the crash seemed to stack up quickly during a post-crash interview. Speaking with Taos County sheriff's deputies, Espinoza allegedly admitted to drinking at Taos Tap Room, an offshoot of Taos Mesa Brewing, and The Alley Cantina, a longstanding Taos bar located in the northwest corner of Taos Plaza, before allegedly driving off in another person's vehicle during a mysterious incident of "shots fired."

"We can't say anything because it's still under investigation," acting Taos Police Chief David Trujillo said this week. "Once the investigation is complete, we'll let you know."

Following the interview, deputies gathered chemical evidence of alcohol levels in Espinoza's bloodstream using a Breathalyzer. They were unable to get an accurate reading, citing the defendant's battered condition, according to an incident report.

During Espinoza's arraignment on Oct. 3, Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said his deputies were unable to conduct a blood test because "there were no blood kits available in the state of New Mexico." New Mexico State Police Lt. Elizabeth Armijo also said that her own inquiries into the availability of the kits supported Hogrefe's statement.

The shortage has now been confirmed by the state. An inquiry as to the exact location of the suppliers was not answered as of press time Wednesday (Oct. 11).

Meanwhile, the Eighth Judicial District Attorney's Office faces a uniquely challenging case given the lack of evidence.

"It's definitely not an ideal situation," said Deputy District Attorney Ron Olsen.

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