The name is certainly a mouthful, but folks at the Kern Regional Crime Lab believe the Liquid Chromatograph Triple Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer could be a game changer in the office’s ongoing effort to provide evidence against suspected DUI drivers — and ultimately take more impaired drivers off Kern County’s roads.
During a tour of the crime lab in downtown Bakersfield on Thursday, David Zimmerman, supervisor of the toxicology unit at the lab, said funding from the California Highway Patrol has helped pay for four of the new lab instruments — as well as other upgrades to the facility.
“This technology has been around for decades,” Zimmerman said. “But the advancement in the electronic switching speeds, the higher vacuums — basically you can pull out more noise and have better sensitivity and signal — that’s what’s improved.”
The mass spectrometer in use since late 2021, Zimmerman said, was not top of the line, but it was high up in quality in 2018 or 2019. That instrument is capable of detecting 55 different psychoactive drugs during a single blood- or urine-screen analysis.
“The new ones are top of the line, today,” he said.
The four new spectrometers are still being tested in house, because criminologists at the lab, and deputy district attorneys who handle these cases, must have high confidence in their accuracy, which must be documented before they carry that evidence into a courtroom.
Alcohol is measured separately, but MDMA, or ecstasy; MDA (a synthetic recreational drug noted for its stimulant and psychedelic properties); the opioid fentanyl, and a wide array of modifications of fentanyl; morphine, hydrocodone; oxycodone; tramadol; oxymorphine; 6-MAM; benzodiazepines (a class of drug related to Xanax); and the psychoactive compounds in marijuana are just a few of the substances that can be detected in an individual’s blood sample by this evolving technology.
“A lot of them are prescription drugs,” Zimmerman said, “because they are known to impair driving.”
That label you see on some prescription medications that warns, “Do not operate heavy machinery,” includes cars, trucks and other common motor vehicles, Zimmerman said.
“If you take those drugs,” he said, “you can get a DUI.”
But these new instruments go far beyond detecting standard prescription drugs. Illicit manufacturers are making new forms of known compounds that have never been described in the literature.
They can also manufacture counterfeit pills that have an official-looking pill stamp.
“A really great example we’ve seen with this new instrument — which is part of the reason why it’s so powerful — is there’s a compound called flualprazolam,” Zimmerman said.
It is related to alprazolam, the generic name for Xanax, the criminologist said. But police and crime lab technicians are now seeing it on the street and in DUI cases.
“With this new instrument, we’ve picked up five or six new benzos that aren’t prescribed anywhere,” he said.
And the spectrum of compounds that can be detected is more than doubling.
When the new equipment comes online, Zimmerman said, criminologists will go from being able to confirm as many as 55 compounds to being able to detect up to 127 compounds in a single run.
“The Crime Lab is constantly improving the technology and techniques it uses to process evidence in criminal cases,” Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer told The Californian in an email.
“This latest advancement in the toxicology department will allow quantitative analysis of drugs that older methods and instrumentation could not efficiently provide,” she said.
“Substances like fentanyl and other drugs affecting impairment are now much more likely to be detected, allowing investigators and juries a clear picture of the range of drugs that affect impairment in DUI and other cases.”
Criminologist Garett Sugimoto, who has worked in the crime lab’s DNA unit and now in the firearms and toolmarks unit, was examining enlarged photos of bullet casings Thursday.
He showed a reporter examples of unique markings on casings which had been highly magnified. Similar markings could become important evidence in cases where casings recovered by detectives at a shooting are matched to a particular firearm seized by police.
The lab in Bakersfield, Sugimoto said, is ahead of many others across the state in certain areas of analysis.
“This lab is very cutting edge,” he said.
And that knowledge plays into a sense of pride and morale among the criminalists.
The loyal opposition
Richard Middlebrook, a Bakersfield defense attorney who specializes in DUI cases, is frankly unimpressed by the recent acquisitions at the crime lab — even though he believes the new spectrometers are some of the most advanced equipment the lab has ever used.
“It’s top of the line. It really is,” Middlebrook said.
But the veteran litigator said, at least in his experience, human error by law enforcement and lab employees has been key to his ability to show juries that the prosecution’s evidence has often been insufficient.
“I have litigated 283 DUI trials,” Middlebrook said. “I have lost eight.
“It’s not because I’m the greatest lawyer in the world,” he said.
It’s the crime lab. And the police. And the whole system, Middlebrook said. Poor blood storage practices. Faulty analysis. Fundamental misunderstandings of scientific evidence.
“Blood is not meant to be stored at room temperature without refrigeration,” he said.
When juries hear about what really happens during the chain of evidence custody, they are often blown away, he said.
That’s why he has lost only three times out of every 100 times he’s gone to trial.
One thing is certain: Both sides have a difficult job to do.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drunken and drugged driving remains America’s deadliest crime.
In 2020, 11,654 people were killed in DUI crashes, accounting for 30 percent of all traffic-related deaths in the United States.
Published: June 27, 2022
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