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Bill eyes crime lab at ECSU

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State Rep. Howard Hunter III, D-Hertford County, speaks at the Pasquotank County Democratic Convention, held Saturday in Courtroom A of the county courthouse.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Lawmakers in the state House have taken the first step toward creation of a crime lab at Elizabeth City State University, a facility one lawmaker says will be a major boon for law enforcement across eastern North Carolina.

Eleven lawmakers, including state Rep. Howard Hunter III, D-Hertford, are backing House Bill 813, which would direct the N.C. Department of Justice to plan an eastern regional laboratory at ECSU.

Hunter previewed the legislation in a meeting with Elizabeth City and Pasquotank County officials last month, reporting that Republican House Majority Leader John Bell and state Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, backed a crime lab at ECSU. In addition to Bell, Lewis and Hunter, state Rep. Michael Wray, D-Northampton, is also a primary sponsor. The measure also has seven cosponsors.

“This is not a 5th District bill,” Hunter said, referring to his district, which includes Pasquotank County. “This is an eastern North Carolina bill.”

Hunter also thanked Elizabeth City police Chief Eddie Buffaloe Jr. for helping drive the proposal. Hunter recounted that he recently asked Buffaloe about local law enforcement's needs, and a regional crime lab was his top request.

During last month's meeting, Buffaloe presented his case for the lab. He said the Elizabeth City Police Department is one of 16 law enforcement agencies in the region that rely on the State Crime Lab in Raleigh to process evidence. Not only is the lab backlogged, but law enforcement agencies must deliver their own evidence there, eating up staff time with travel.

Opening a new lab at ECSU, which is state-owned site in a central location for northeastern North Carolina, would be ideal and relatively inexpensive, he said.

Hunter and ECSU spokesman Rob Kelly-Goss have said initial talks are to locate the crime lab in the old infirmary building, in the back of the campus off Parkview Drive. The building is in good shape, according to Kelly-Goss, but what it would cost to put a crime lab there is unclear.

H813 directs the Department of Justice to plan to open a lab at ECSU, and report back to lawmakers on appropriations committees, as well as the Fiscal Research Division, by Feb. 1, 2020. The bill states DOJ's report shall include the costs of completing the lab, the costs of its first five years of operations, the estimated timeline for opening it, and any other “relevant information.”

Notably, the legislation provides no funding toward the crime lab at ECSU, nor does it commit lawmakers to follow through on DOJ's plan, once submitted.

Asked about that, Hunter reiterated lawmakers are committed to the project, but the state has to know what it will cost first.

“They can't just build it without a budget,” he said, adding he hopes lawmakers will be able to fund the project — including construction and hiring new staff — during next year's short session.

In an email Wednesday, Buffaloe welcomed the legislation as well.

“I feel very positive about the legislation introduced regarding the crime lab,” he said, adding he believes it proposes a reasonable amount of time to assess the lab's needs.

Addressing the need for the facility, Buffaloe said the city police department has 220 pending evidence submissions to the State Crime Lab.

In addition to the main lab, North Carolina also has regional labs in Edneyville and Greensboro, both of which are west of Raleigh.

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