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D.C. DUI Lab Results May be Questioned

by | Jun 17, 2013

Thousands of pending DUI cases and DUI convictions have been thrown into question after an independent investigation revealed major problems in the Colorado state crime lab.

Our D.C. DUI defense lawyers know that situations such as these are unfortunately not isolated. From Boston to Seattle, crime labs have proven prone to error – despite the credibility they receive from jurors, thanks to such Hollywood inventions as CSI and Crossing Jordan. Despite the images portrayed on screen, these facilities are not infallible.

In fact, you would never know it from watching television, but many crime lab workers aren’t necessarily scientists. At some labs, all that is required to become a forensic technician or arson specialist is a high school diploma.

Perhaps even more relevant is the fact that although laboratory technicians are supposed to be unbiased, they often aren’t. They are either run by police agencies or agencies affiliated with police departments. In some cases, lab technicians are a part of the prosecution’s team. This means these facilities have a vested interest in securing convictions and clearing the rate of unsolved crimes.

In a lot of cases, police or prosecutors will share their suspicions of guilt with lab technicians before the tests are performed, leading to the potential for bias in testing.

Making matters worse is that there is no uniform procedural system at labs nationwide. There is no nationwide standard. There is also little to no oversight of these facilities. So bias or poor procedures

This was just one aspect of the problems reported in Colorado. The investigation, which resulted in the issuance of a March report that only recently became public, focused on the results in the state’s toxicology lab.

There were reportedly a host of problems, including:

  • The laboratory was severely understaffed;
  • Blood and urine samples, though stored behind a locked door, were in an unlocked refrigerator, which left them vulnerable to potential tampering;
  • Lab workers, although called to testify as experts, revealed to the investigator that they did not believe the had been properly trained;
  • The supervisor reportedly forced technicians to help her with her graduate school thesis during their working hours.

Although officials said the problems could be traced back to a single lab supervisor. However, one supervisor in a lab that oversees hundreds or thousands of cases every month can have a significant impact.

Having a rouge lab technician is, in some ways, almost worse than a rouge cop, because of the power of their testimony and the widespread potential impact they may have.

The case out of Boston involves a former state crime lab chemist, who is facing federal criminal charges and is now being sued in federal civil court for falsifying evidence in as many as 35,000 cases. In the lawsuit filed, the plaintiff alleges civil rights violations when he was arrested for possession of cocaine. He alleges it was counterfeit and the chemist never actually conducted any tests to prove the origin of the substance one way or the other.

There are nearly 300 cases going back to trial as a result of evidence that she personally handled.

And in New York City, a technician is accused of improperly handling DNA samples in more than 25 rape cases.

In DUI cases, crime lab results can be critical. A person could face many years – possibly life – behind bars, largely on the basis of what those test results say. Primarily, blood and urine samples tell us whether certain substances (alcohol and/or drugs) were in a person’s system at the time of testing, and to what extent. If samples aren’t properly stored or if technicians are less-than-honest, those results can be unfairly skewed.

In D.C. in October, officials unveiled a $220 million state-of-the-art forensics laboratory. However, a recent profile by the Washington Times reveals that many aspects of that facility may be vulnerable to some of these same problems, due to lack of basic resources, staff shortages and sloppy evidence handling.

Still, successfully challenging crime lab evidence is not easy. We can help.

If you are facing DUI charges in D.C., contact the Scrofano Law, PC at 202-765-3175.