For families of victims killed in hit-and-run crashes, knowing a suspect is still on the streets is a source of constant pain. However, San Diego police say throwing a suspect in jail too fast could ultimately compromise their case.
Such is the situation for the family of 15-year-old Jonathan Cortez, who was hit and killed while skateboarding on Oct. 9 -- just two days before his 16th birthday.
Furious friends took to the streets chanting “We want justice,” calling for an arrest after San Diego police impounded a Dodge Caravan suspected of being used in the hit-and-run. Officers seized the vehicle three days after Cortez’s death.
Though a man called to turn himself in, police did not make an arrest. The detective on the case told NBC 7, “The crime lab is backlogged with other cases and if they made an arrest last night, they would have to put together all the evidence and present it before the court within 72 hours of the arrest."
San Diego Police Department (SDPD) spokesman Lt. Scott Wahl said one of the most difficult parts of hit-and-run investigations is putting the driver behind the wheel of the car at the time of the incident.
That is one reason why investigators can't rush to a judgment or arrests.
“Any criminal arrest, you're on the clock to present your evidence in court, so rushing that arrest when you don’t have all the evidence to move forward in court, it could certainly jeopardize your case,” Wahl explained.
A month after her son's death, that's little consolation to Cortez’s mom, Veronica.
“It’s very frustrating. I haven't heard from the detectives at all. Last time I heard from them was three weeks ago,” she said.
According to Wahl, investigators understand and empathize with the family’s pain. “That's what motivates us,” he said.
Wahl walked NBC 7 through part of the traffic investigation process, showing the DNA kits traffic detectives use to swab suspects and vehicles.
The kits are then logged into evidence at the police department's 6th-floor crime lab downtown. There, lab techs also have to process kits from homicide, robbery and other police units.
“It’s all done on a priority basis depending on the crime," explained Wahl. He said felony crimes take precedence over misdemeanors, and sometimes the line for kits to be processed can be fast or get bottlenecked.
According to Wahl, it can be as random as a checkout line at a grocery store.
Cases affecting families who've lost loved ones are anxious for justice.
"It's due process which I don’t understand how that works. I figure if someone turns themselves in I figure they'd get arrested. I don’t understand that part. This is frustrating," Veronica said.
Police said they need the public’s help in Cortez’s case. They’re still looking for one or two other cars that may have been involved in the deadly hit-and-run.