Chris Loftis - WSP Director of Communications. Photo by Keelin Everly-Lang / The Mirror

State patrol opens new toxicology lab in Federal Way

Facility expected to speed up test results related to DUIs and assaults.

A backlog of 14,000 death and DUI cases should start to decrease with the official opening of the Washington State Patrol’s new toxicology laboratory in Federal Way. The new lab began processing samples in October and held its official ribbon cutting on Dec. 7.

This backlog represents families in Washington state who are waiting to hear results about a loved one’s death or the result of a possible DUI charge. Before the addition of this new location, these samples all had to be processed through the single toxicology lab in Seattle.

Finding results through the Federal Way location means the justice system can do its work, said Chief John Batiste of Washington State Patrol.

“It gives closure to the families, for one thing,” said Batiste at the lab’s dedication and ribbon cutting at 33810 Weyerhaeuser Way South. “Those who have been victimized by the actions of an irresponsible person, it brings about accountability that family wants to see happen, and it brings about closure. It sends a message to offenders and potential offenders.”

Batiste added that repeat offenders are the state patrol’s biggest problem and having test results faster will make it clear that driving under the influence will not be tolerated.

“This is a preventable situation,” Batiste said. “We’ve said it over and over again: There’s no excuse.”

The lab team had to protect sensitive samples and confidential information from the crowd of guests invited into the new building. As the media team prepped, one camera person was told “don’t even breathe” on some instruments past a line of tape on the floor.

About 65% of the samples processed at the toxicology lab are related to cases of driving under the influence, while about 35% are autopsies. A small percentage are cases related to crimes where drug levels are relevant, such as sexual assaults, according to Elizabeth Gough, division director.

The new lab requires new staff. Washington State Patrol spokesperson Chris Loftis said that each new hire will take about 12-18 months to be full contributors to the operation due to the extensive training and supervision required.

Once fully staffed, Washington State Patrol hopes the lab will help them meet goals of a 60-90 day turnaround rather than the current average of 343 days for test results. At the ribbon cutting, Gov. Jay Inslee commented on the impact of these long wait times, saying of the new lab “right here is a first line of defense against those impaired drivers, because it allows the state patrol to get blood sample levels, breath levels, samples back to the agency responsible in a timely fashion. And frankly, that’s been a challenge because the need for these toxicology services has gone up about 45 percent since 2016.”

There were 352 fatalities involving drug-positive or alcohol impaired drivers in 2022, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. To combat this issue, Senate Bill 5002 is currently being considered to propose reducing the legal blood alcohol level limit for driving to 0.05 percent from its current 0.08 percent. This could be as little as only two drinks for a person of any gender who is 240 pounds, as just one example. At a BAC of 0.05 percent, a driver has reduced coordination and ability to track moving objects, difficulty steering, and delayed response to emergency driving situations, according to the commission.

The Federal Way community put a special emphasis on fighting DUIs when two graduating seniors were killed in 2010. In 2014, the Federal Way City Council unanimously approved allocating $50,000 for “The Nick and Derek Project,” a DUI/distracted driving emphasis patrol program.

The new lab is 11,700 square feet and cost around $4.5 million to build. As previously reported in The Mirror, this lab has been a major need for years.

Elizabeth Gough, division director, shared that one challenge of toxicology testing is that they have to test for such a variety of substances now, and they test for over 150 at the toxicology lab. Staying up to date on the ever-growing number of drugs can be a challenge, but guests had the opportunity to see a machine called a Time of Flight Mass Spectrometer that helps the Washington State Patrol respond quickly to new versions of drugs as they enter the system.

The new setup has increased efficiencies for everyone involved, including a way for officers to drop off samples easily, according to lab management.

The lab began testing samples in October and will be ramping up their services throughout the coming year. Hiring is still underway and five candidates are currently going through the extensive background check process, according to management.

Forensic scientist Kelly Halen shows the reduced amount of blood needed in a sample with a new process, a reduction from 1 milliliters to 0.2 milliliters. (Photo by Keelin Everly-Lang / The Reporter)

Forensic scientist Kelly Halen shows the reduced amount of blood needed in a sample with a new process, a reduction from 1 milliliters to 0.2 milliliters. (Photo by Keelin Everly-Lang / The Reporter)

How samples are tested

A vial of blood can’t be tested for every substance at once. First it must be processed into a state that is ready for testing, then tested separately for alcohol, THC and other substances as needed, according to lab management.

The facility can test for up to 150 different compounds. This trend of seeing multiple substances in each sample is part of the reason testing takes longer now.

The guests at the lab’s opening were able to go through a tour of the facilities, starting with the larger and more efficient sample drop-off process. Next, they saw the extraction site for alcohol, which they are able to do with a much smaller blood sample.

Then guests visited the headspace gas chromatography, machine that spins the samples at a high speed. It can process 70 samples at a time, but each one must be tested twice and takes 3-5 minutes per sample, according to newly hired forensic scientist Alec McDougall.

The guests then saw the machines used for Time of Flight (TOF) mass spectrometry, which is a technique for evaluating composition and structure of substances. They even got the chance to observe an example of what a THC sample looks like on the screen.

The Washington State Patrol processes a variety of evidence that doesn’t go through a toxicology lab and has been working on ensuring the right facilities to handle large volumes in those areas as well, according to lab management. They have also reported similar processing time reduction in the case of sexual assault evidence and rape kits, which had a two-year delay at one point and now are down to 45 days or under, according to the state patrol.

“I’m proud of the Legislature for funding this facility, and I’m proud of the citizens who are pulling together against this crime in the state of Washington,” Inslee said during the opening. “This is personal for me because I cut my teeth as a lawyer prosecuting impaired drivers. The tragedy when some drunk driver take someone’s life in Washington state is inexcusable.”


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Dr. Fiona Couper, Director of the Forensic Laboratory Services Bureau. Photo by Keelin Everly-Lang / The Mirror
WSP Chief John Batiste. Photo by Keelin Everly-Lang / The Mirror
Local leaders help cut the ribbon at the Federal Way toxicology lab opening event. From left to right: Mayor Jim Ferrell, Sen. Claire Wilson, Deputy Mayor Susan Honda, Gov. Jay Inslee, Council President Linda Kochmar, Dr. Fiona Couper, director of the Forensic Laboratory Services Bureau, WSP Chief John Batiste and Federal Way Police Chief Andy Hwang. (Photo by Keelin Everly-Lang / The Reporter)

Local leaders help cut the ribbon at the Federal Way toxicology lab opening event. From left to right: Mayor Jim Ferrell, Sen. Claire Wilson, Deputy Mayor Susan Honda, Gov. Jay Inslee, Council President Linda Kochmar, Dr. Fiona Couper, director of the Forensic Laboratory Services Bureau, WSP Chief John Batiste and Federal Way Police Chief Andy Hwang. (Photo by Keelin Everly-Lang / The Reporter)

A sticky note reminds the visiting guests not to touch any equipment or turn any knobs during the toxicology lab tour. Photo by Keelin Everly-Lang / The Reporter

A sticky note reminds the visiting guests not to touch any equipment or turn any knobs during the toxicology lab tour. Photo by Keelin Everly-Lang / The Reporter

Technical lead Madison Fuller shows the toxicology lab’s new equipement to Gov. Jay Inslee, State Sen. Claire Wilson and John Batiste. Fuller will take on a new role as quality assurance manager in January. Photo by Keelin Everly-Lang / The Reporter

Technical lead Madison Fuller shows the toxicology lab’s new equipement to Gov. Jay Inslee, State Sen. Claire Wilson and John Batiste. Fuller will take on a new role as quality assurance manager in January. Photo by Keelin Everly-Lang / The Reporter

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