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Lab Flaws Leave Thousands of Massachusetts Criminal Cases in Jeopardy

The bottom may have fallen out on thousands of criminal cases relying on drug testing analysis conducted at state labs, after a chemist was found flouting testing protocols. Both she and two of her supervisors have been placed on administrative leave, leaving thousands of convictions and ongoing criminal cases open to the possibility of dismissal.

Massachusetts criminal defense lawyers know that there are many criminal cases in which conviction may be contingent on whether drugs were found in a person’s system, what kinds of drugs and in what levels.

One example are DUI cases alleging prescription or illegal drug use.

Other times, laboratory results are used to determine whether a substance is an illegal narcotic. So if police find a white, powdery substance in a vehicle during a traffic stop, a conviction for a charge of possession of cocaine is going to be based largely on whether chemists proved that the substance was cocaine.

This is true for many aspects of a case. An experienced defense attorney will challenge evidence presented or allegations made by law enforcement officers, experts, alleged victims and other witnesses. One weak link can be enough to force a reduction or dismissal of charges, or at least a favorable plea deal. Failure to challenge the charges against you means the state is relieved of having to prove much of anything.

What happened here was that a single chemist, who has been working at the Massachusetts State Police crime lab since 2003, apparently had mishandled drug evidence and attempted to alter an evidence log. She reportedly failed to record the movement of drugs in and out of the evidence room. When supervisors discovered a problem, the errors were mysteriously fixed the following day.

The chemist resigned in March, and although she hasn’t been charged with anything, the state’s Attorney General’s Office has opened a criminal investigation into the matter. The woman’s husband was quoted by media as saying she is being used as a “scapegoat,” suggesting problems at the lab were far more widespread than the misdeeds of one person.

While officials believe 90 samples of drugs were jeopardized over the course of one day, the implications are that the problems may be systemic.

Police are working to gather a compilation of cases the chemist worked on during her time there. They and prosecutors will then be expected to go back and re-examine whether her work was central to the case. If so, they will need to inform defense attorneys, who can then either file a motion for a new trial or file a motion to vacate a guilty plea.

In addition to jeopardizing the prosecution in these cases, it also is likely to slow the progress of cases that are ongoing, as state officials work to sort through the mess. It also will no doubt allow defense attorneys to raise questions in the future with regard to the accuracy of state lab results.

Defense attorneys in Boston understand that many government crime labs, due to a lack of funding and lowered staffing levels, are working under difficult and high-pressure conditions. However, when a person’s freedom is on the line, we expect a higher standard.

At the end of the day, lab workers have an inherent bias because they are essentially working for law enforcement (in this case, the Massachusetts State Police). That’s why defense attorneys will often request an outside, independent source for testing in cases where that evidence is key. Those who work in the industry say that safeguards simply aren’t in place to ensure that lab bias doesn’t consistently skew in favor of prosecutors.

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Additional Resources:
Additional supervisor placed on leave in drug lab investigation, Staff Report, Associated Press

More Blog Entries:
Does the new Massachusetts crime bill apply to pending charges of distribution within a school zone, Sept. 4, 2012, Massachusetts Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog

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