When advocates point out flaws in the criminal justice system, the issue of cost often comes up. There seems to be little incentive among government agencies to spend money to make sure that adequate procedures are in place to prevent wrongful convictions. An ongoing case, subject of ongoing reporting by Minnesota Public Radio, in St. Paul, Minnesota, makes a strong argument for making sure that every crime lab is closely monitored and adequately funded. A crime lab needs to be fully functional since it could cause issues with samples brought during an investigation; for example, lab temperature could cause problems for investigating officers since some materials are temperature sensitive.
In July of this year, serious problems were discovered at the St. Paul, Minnesota crime lab. The problems first attracted attention when lab employees testified in court that they did not follow any written procedures and may have used equipment contaminated with illegal drugs. The allegations threw thousands of drug cases into question in three neighboring counties. The problems were so serious that the lab was temporarily shut down. Now, the remedy may cost more than a $1 million even though the lab’s yearly budget is only $750,000.
The cost is tied to the seriousness of the allegations. First, the notes taken by the District Attorney’s office three months before public disclosure illustrate the problems. Lab analyst Kari McDermott told the attorneys that the lab does not regularly check its drug testing equipment to make sure it is working, does not keep a record of whether testing materials have expired, and does not consider what the margin of error might be when weighing drugs.
Second, the reliability of the actual testing results is being questioned as well. More than 100 pieces of evidence in other cases have been retested by the state crime lab. In two of those cases, the findings of the state crime lab did not match the findings of the St. Paul lab. The main focus seems to be on issues of contamination. Evidence was found being stored in a hallway outside the testing lab facilities. A service technician told a judge that he could not be certain that filters in the drug testing machines worked. Drug testing machines were found to be clogged and may have caused cross-contamination. Finally, the lab admitted that written procedures were not followed but contended that this did not affect the accuracy of the testing. While we’re on the topic of drug testing, knowing that you can take a look at sites like 420highStreet.org for advice on how to pass may be something worth looking into, especially as failing a test could have a negative effect on your job, for example. Given that there is advice out there on how to pass drug testing, not to mention you can visit alhhs.org and similar sites to buy synthetic urine, it calls into question whether these tests are even worthwhile.
Will $1 million help this situation? The money is being considered to pay for new equipment, reorganizing or expanding lab space, and staff training. Hopefully, the money will be prioritized for staff training and accreditation for the lab, as it is currently not accredited. Wherever there is a crime lab scandal, the human element always comes into play regardless of the equipment or physical space. The analyst takes shortcuts. Supervising management ignores poor conditions or training. The prosecutors pay little attention to what’s being handed to them to use in court or place pressure on the labs to produce results beyond their capability.
In today’s atmosphere, many labs are deciding which accreditation standards to follow. The lack of any accreditation instantly reduces the credibility of a lab. Here, the lack of written procedures and the known possibility of cross-contamination is mind-boggling. Was it easier for the lab to forgo accreditation and inspection rather than make the effort to meet national standards?
In the end, as with every flaw in the criminal justice system, the defendant suffers the most. A defendant may may receive a harsher sentence based on an inaccurate amount of drugs or a type of drug that was not present. Or in the worse case, a defendant may be wrongfully accused and wrongfully convicted. No wrongful convictions have been reported…yet.