Are the Police Crime Labs That Test for Drug Crimes Trustworthy?
Over the past few years, it has been demonstrated time and again that the forensic science performed in some law enforcement crime labs is of such poor quality that their evidence may not even meet constitutional standards for reliability. Numerous, highly-public reports of misanalysis, cross-contamination and destruction of evidence in cases ranging from DUI and drug crimes to rape and other violent crimes has rightly shaken our trust in these institutions.
Slate.com just published a two-part exposé of the issue, calling the world of crime labs “unsettling” and openly declaring that “crime labs botch tests all the time.”
In one recent, high-profile case of major evidentiary errors by lab technicians Slate cited, investigators found major errors by a Boston chemist whose job was to analyze evidence in narcotics cases. For nine years she worked for the state lab, routinely performing her analyses many times faster than her colleagues. Unsurprisingly, it turned out that her speed was due to failure to follow proper procedures. Since the discovery, as many as 1,141 drug convictions have been overturned.
More recently, investigators found at least 26 rape tests botched by a DNA technician at the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office. The prosecutor will have now to reexamine 800 rape cases handled by that technician.
The primary organization that certifies criminal justice labs is the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board, or ASCLD/LAB. It offers voluntary certification to crime labs across the nation and abroad, including 15 in Florida, and is currently considered the industry standard in certification.
As for ASCLD/LAB’s credibility, Slate revealed a 2011 memo by Marvin Schechter, a member of the New York State Commission on Forensic Science. Schechter sharply criticized ASCLD/LAB, saying that its real purpose appears to be to sell crime labs a “seal of approval” to allow them to “bolster their credibility” and provide “protection from outside inquiry…especially in the event of public condemnation.”
The justice system cannot be allowed to produce evidence against criminal defendants that cannot be trusted. Presenting tainted evidence at trial is potentially to violate the due process rights of the accused. As Slate points out, these shocking cases will draw media attention, but everyday bungling may not. If the certification of our crime labs is really just a shield against transparency, we need to make a profound change.
- Slate.com, “Crime Labs Botch Tests All the Time. Who’s Supposed To Make Sure They Don’t Screw Up?” Justin Peters, Jan. 17, 2013
- Slate.com, “The Unsettling, Underregulated World of Crime Labs,” Justin Peters, Jan. 14, 2013