San Francisco Drug Lab Scandal: Symptom of a Wider Problem?

In what has become a national scandal, and a major embarrassment to a police department already receiving its fair share of criticism, it was revealed last month that an employee at the San Francisco Police Department’s drug lab stole cocaine (which was to be used as evidence in a drug case) from the lab for her own personal use.

This led to an investigation, which turned up evidence of widespread evidence tampering. As a result, the San Francisco District Attorney’s office has indicated that it may have to throw out hundreds of drug-related criminal cases.

The drug lab has since been closed indefinitely, pending an investigation. Preliminary results of the investigation show that the problems with this particular lab may go back years, and include sloppy evidence handling, along with possible thefts of drugs which were seized as evidence.

Obviously, this situation is unacceptable. But is it unique to San Francisco? According to at least one organization, the Crime Lab Project, similar problems exist all over the country. The organization, wisely, I believe, seeks to dispel popular myths about forensic science in the U.S. – propagated by crime films, and TV shows like CSI. Most crime labs in the U.S. are not the sparkling facilities bristling with the latest in high-tech gadgetry that we see on TV. Instead, police crime labs are often located in aging facilities, are under-funded and understaffed. The employees they do have are often not paid very well, while being burdened with massive backlogs of cases.

Of course, we should all be grateful for the work that these professionals do, especially given the difficult circumstances under which they often operate. Recent advances in forensic science have done wonders for the criminal justice system, exonerating innocent people after years behind bars (and some on death row), and bringing to justice criminals who otherwise might never have been caught.

San Francisco’s recent problem serves as a good example of this, with hundreds of cases getting thrown out. And not all of these cases involved simple possession or the sale of a little bit of marijuana. Some of the evidence which had to be thrown out was being used to build cases against members of very dangerous gangs.

If a person wrongfully accused of a crime ends up getting the case against him or her dismissed due to a crime lab error, he or she will of course view this as a good thing. They might not have ever been accused in the first place if the crime lab were functioning.

Also, more statistical evidence about crime lab errors would make it easier for defense attorneys to undermine every single piece of DNA evidence that comes before a court. Of course, if a certain type of evidence (or, more accurately, the methods used to collect and analyze it) proves to suffer from a significant error rate, defense attorneys have every right to point that fact out, to call into question the credibility of the prosecution’s case.

However, this would almost certainly lead to some guilty people going free. The obvious solution, it seems, would be to ensure that crime labs are properly funded, staffed, and equipped, thereby reducing their error rates, which would make such arguments far less persuasive.

But until and unless this happens, there will be a debate, which has gone on for years (as this article from 2004 illustrates), as to the extent that crime labs should produce and publish error rates.

On one hand, doing so will almost certainly give defense attorneys more leverage to undermine a great deal of prosecution evidence, at least in the short run. On the other hand, is this such a bad thing? Sure, some guilty people might go free as a result. But it will likely save a large number of innocent people, as well. Perhaps making this information public would create the political will to actually fix this problem.

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