Prosecutors dismissed a drug charge against a St. Paul woman after a re-test of the evidence by the state crime lab found it was not illegal drugs.
The troubled St. Paul police crime lab initially tested the evidence in the case against Pahoua Yang and found it was methamphetamine. After the lab shut down drug testing, the evidence was submitted to the state-run Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for re-testing. Out of the 97 cases re-tested by the BCA lab, this is the first that found a serious problem with the St. Paul lab's findings.
''It's very troubling for us because this is something that we certainly weren't hoping for,''said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, whose office dismissed the charge against Yang on Sept. 27.
It's also the latest blow to the credibility of the St. Paul lab, which suspended drug testing in July after employees said they did not follow any written procedures and may have relied on equipment contaminated by cocaine. An independent review of the lab is already underway.
Police began investigating Yang, 26, when they pulled over a stolen car on April 24, 2011. Yang was one of the passengers, and police searched her clothes and found a glass pipe and a small bag of what they thought was methamphetamine in her jacket pocket. Yang told an officer she used the pipe for smoking meth.
The St. Paul police lab determined the evidence was .38 grams of methamphetamine. The police department did not respond to a call seeking comment.
It is unclear which lab analyst performed the disputed test. However, a list of potential witnesses in the case, dated April 16, 2012, includes Sgt. Shay Shackle, the former head of the lab who was reassigned after defense attorneys challenged the lab's work in several Dakota County drug cases. Another witness on the list is Roberta DeCrans, a lab analyst who has previously testified that she overlooked signs of possible contamination in a Dakota County drug case.
Yang was charged with fifth-degree drug possession. She could not be reached for comment.
The case was still pending when problems with drug testing at the St. Paul crime lab came to light this summer. The lab tested drugs for Ramsey, Dakota and Washington Counties.
Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said he was surprised by this latest result.
''It could be a fluke. I don't know,'' Orput said. ''If it looks systematic then obviously you know that's going to take us in another direction, but I can't even speculate right now because I don't know what it means.''
Orput and his fellow county attorneys in Ramsey and Dakota Counties are asking for an explanation. They wrote a letter to St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith on Oct. 2 asking him "to immediately review the circumstances regarding the initial testing and retesting of the substance in the Yang case and share the results of that review with us and the public."
Choi said the police chief is reviewing the matter and taking it seriously.
Assistant state public defender Pam King, an expert in forensic science, said the case is troubling, especially in light of the ongoing legal dispute over the handling of evidence by the St. Paul lab in several Dakota County drug cases.
''It seems to again beg the question of what's going on at the St. Paul crime lab,'' King said.
King said it's significant that another lab reached a different conclusion about the evidence. She said the St. Paul lab should respond by asking the BCA to retest evidence from cases that have already been prosecuted.
''How many other answers did they get wrong? How many people pled guilty relying on information that they thought was reliable from the crime lab when it wasn't reliable information in the first place?'' King said.
The BCA continues to retest evidence in pending drug cases. The St. Paul lab's drug testing unit remains suspended while the independent review of the lab's work continues.