BOISE, Idaho - When police officer Darryll Dowell is on patrol in the southwestern Idaho city of Nampa, he'll pull up at a stoplight and usually start casing the vehicle. Nowadays, his eyes will also focus on the driver's arms as he searches for a plump vein.
"I was looking at people's arms and hands, thinking, 'I could draw from that,'" Dowell said.
It's part of training he and a select cadre of officers in Idaho and Texas have received in recent months to draw blood from those suspected of drunken or drugged driving. The federal program will determine whether blood drawn by officers can aid in the prosecution of drunken drivers.
If the results seem promising after a year or two, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will encourage police nationwide to undergo similar training.
For years, defense attorneys in Idaho advised clients to always refuse breath tests, Ada County Deputy Prosecutor Christine Starr said. When the state toughened the penalties for refusing the tests a few years ago, the problem lessened, but it's still the main reason that drunken driving cases go to trial in the Boise region.
Idaho had a 20 percent breath test refusal rate in 2005, compared with 22 percent nationally, according to an NHTSA study.
Starr hopes the new system will cut down on the number of drunken driving trials. Officers can't hold down a suspect and force them to breath into a tube, she noted, but they can forcefully take blood - a practice that's been upheld by Idaho's Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.
The nation's highest court ruled in 1966 that police could forcibly conduct blood tests on a drunken driving suspect without a warrant as long as the draw was based on a reasonable suspicion that a suspect was intoxicated, that it was done after an arrest and carried out in a medically approved manner.
The practice of police drawing blood, implemented first in 1995 in Arizona, has also raised concerns about safety and the credibility of the evidence.
"I would imagine that a lot of people would be wary of having their blood drawn by an officer on the hood of their police vehicle," said Steve Oberman, chair of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' DUI Committee.
Though most legal experts agree blood tests measure blood alcohol more accurately than breath tests, Oberman said the tests can be fraught with problems, too.
Vials can be mixed up, preservative levels in the tubes used to collect the blood can be off, or the blood can be stored improperly, causing it to ferment, boosting the alcohol content.
Oberman said law enforcement agencies should also be concerned "about possible malpractice cases over somebody who was not properly trained."
The Phoenix Police Department only uses blood tests for impaired driving cases. Detective Kemp Layden, who oversees drug recognition, phlebotomy and field sobriety, said the city now has about 120 officers certified to draw blood. Typically, a suspect is brought to a precinct or mobile booking van for the blood draw.
For the approximately 5 percent who refuse testing, the officer obtains a search warrant from an on-call judge and the suspect can be restrained if needed, Layden said.
Outside of Arizona, some law enforcement agencies in Utah have officer phlebotomists.
The NHTSA is in talks with Houston about doing phlebotomy training there.