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Monday, August 13, 2012

Problems at the St. Paul Crime Lab

     The crime lab in St. Paul, Minnesota is operated by the police department. Between 2007 and 2011, the laboratory has handled more than 16,000 cases involving 200,000 pieces of physical evidence. In the spring of 2011, a pair of Dakota County public defenders, Lauri Traub and Christine Funk, began raising questions regarding the reliability of results coming out of the lab's drug testing unit. Members of the Dakota County Drug Task Force had also expressed concerns over the quality of the lab's drug analysis.

     The lab in St. Paul is one of 18 in the state of Minnesota that has not been accredited by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors, a process of authentication that can take up to two years. After public defenders Traub and Funk visited the lab in March 2012, they asked a Dakota County judge to hold a special hearing to determine if the findings of the drug testing operation can be trusted.

     On July 17, at the special crime lab hearing, attorney Traub questioned Sergeant Jay Siegel, the director of the lab. Siegel, a former patrol officer who once worked as a latent fingerprint examiner, testified that he had no formal education in science. Attorney Traub presented the lab director with a list of 51 scientific protocols that must be adhered to before a crime lab meets the minimum standards of proficiency and credibility. Sergeant Siegel was forced to admit that the St. Paul Lab had been ignoring all but two of the 51 protocols. He testified that three of the criminalists who tested narcotics seized by the police had little formal training in drug analysis. The lab director also acknowledged that the facility had not been keeping proper records, and that personnel regularly misused the drug testing equipment. In Siegel's opinion, results coming out of this unit could not be trusted.

     At the conclusion of the forensic science court hearing, Police Chief Thomas Smith suspended the lab's drug testing operation, and appointed a police commander to take over the administration of the facility. The chief reassigned Sergeant Siegel to another police job. Chief Thomas also ordered an internal review of the beleaguered operation.

     This crime laboratory will never be credible as long as it's run by the police department, and remains unaccredited. Because almost all criminal justice resources are earmarked for uniformed policing, and crime labs are extremely expensive to operate, the future of the St. Paul facility looks bleak. 

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