Evidence-tampering suspected at crime lab; Florida reviews drug cases (+video)

Florida police are reviewing thousands of drug cases handled by one crime-lab chemist, out of concern he might have tampered with evidence. Hundreds of drug convictions in Florida hang in the balance, state police say.

Thousands of drug cases handled by a single chemist at a state-run crime lab are under review amid allegations that the chemist might have tampered with drug evidence, state police said at a weekend press conference in Tallahassee, Fla. If the suspicions are borne out, hundreds of drug-related convictions could be tossed out statewide, police said.

The chemist, who works at the Pensacola Regional Crime Lab, is suspected of removing “large” quantities of prescription pills from evidence packages and replacing them with over-the-counter medications, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced Saturday. Officials did not specify a motive, but speculated that the employee could have an addiction problem or be involved in drug trafficking.

The allegations of evidence tampering could jeopardize convictions in hundreds of some 2,600 drug cases that the unnamed chemist handled over the past eight years, police said. The incident, coming on the heels of large-scale evidence tampering at a crime lab in Massachusetts, also raises questions about how best to prevent such activity.

“This has the potential of impacting hundreds of drug cases across our state,” Gerald Bailey, head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), said at a press conference. “This is a total shock and a disappointment.”

The investigation in Florida follows the sentencing in November of a Boston crime lab chemist to three to five years in prison, plus two years' probation, for tampering with drug evidence in thousands of cases – a scandal shocking in its scale and audaciousness.

The Massachusetts chemist, Annie Dookhan – portrayed in court as an ambitious young woman whose zeal to get ahead had led her to produce bogus test results to help win convictions – had processed more than 40,000 drug cases, putting the outcomes of all of them in doubt. At least 350 people have so far been released on the basis of Ms. Dookhan’s involvement in their cases. The state legislature has set aside $30 million to pay costs related to the Dookhan evidence-tampering, including funds for local prosecutors to hunt for untainted evidence to try to sustain now-suspect convictions.

The episode in Florida, smaller in scale than the one in Massachusetts, is nonetheless expected to have substantial fallout. Since 2006, the chemist at the center of the investigation has worked on some 2,600 cases for 80 law enforcement agencies in 35 Florida counties and 12 judicial circuits, police said. Those figures represent about 1 percent of the volume of evidence that has passed though the crime lab over the past eight years, police said.

It is the largest known instance of alleged evidence-tampering ever at a Florida crime lab, a Florida police spokesperson told Reuters. If the allegations of evidence-tampering prove to be true, hundreds of convicted drug dealers could be freed from prison, police said at the news conference. 

The case is raising questions about how to prevent such misconduct – and the far-reaching effects that unfold from them – at crime labs.

Few US states require their crime labs to obtain formal accreditation. The now-shuttered, state-run lab in Massachusetts where Dookhan worked was not accredited, prompting outcry at the time at the apparent lack of oversight of the lab’s activities.

The Florida lab, though, does have accreditation, having sought it voluntarily through the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board. ASCLD/LAB adheres to a set of international standards and, as of this month, accredits 403 crime labs worldwide, including 194 state laboratories. The Pensacola lab’s accreditation, good until September 2015, was last updated in February 2012.

John Neuner, executive director of ASCLD/LAB, declined to comment at length on the allegations at the Pensacola lab, citing the continuing investigation, but said that ASCLD/LAB has been made aware of the situation.

“The lab is responding exactly as we would expect an accredited lab to respond,” he told the Monitor.

The Pensacola crime lab is one of six the state operates; the network of labs is under the jurisdiction of the FDLE, and all of the labs have accreditation through ASCLD/LAB.

No one has been arrested in the incident, and the chemist in question has been placed on paid leave during the investigation, according to police. The chemist has hired an attorney and is not cooperating in the investigation, Reuters reported. His motives remain unknown.

"It could be for personal use. It could be for trafficking. We don't know," the FDLE's Mr. Bailey said at a news conference.

Bailey also said that the state is reviewing its drug-testing policies for employees. Employees are drug-tested when they begin employment with the state, but never again, unless there is cause to suspect them of abusing narcotics. The state is considering revising the policy so that all employees are drug-tested at intervals after their employment begins, the Associated Press reported.

The internal review was launched after the Escambia County Sheriff's Office reported to the state last week that evidence was missing in several drug cases.

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