St. Paul police chief suspends crime lab drug testing

Drug testing is being temporarily suspended in the St. Paul Police Department crime lab.

Police Chief Thomas Smith told Mayor Chris Coleman about the suspension in a letter Wednesday.

In a Dakota County court hearing this week, two crime lab workers and the director of the lab said the lab does not follow any written procedures for drug testing and does not document most of the steps they take when testing evidence for illegal drugs.

Smith's letter said he will "review and reorganize the leadership structure within the department's crime lab," among other steps.

"This is not looked upon as a one-time fix and we look forward to continuing our tradition of service," Smith said. "We will continue to keep our partners advised of future changes as we look toward other mid-range and long-term goals for our crime lab."

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The St. Paul crime lab's problems came to light during a hearing in the case of Matthew Jensen, a Rochester man charged with drug possession. His defense attorneys have asked a Dakota county judge to throw out drug evidence from the St. Paul crime lab because they say the lab's work is unreliable.

The two lab employees also testified that the drug testing in the Jensen case may have been contaminated.

Before the closure of the lab was announced Wednesday, Washington County Attorney Pete Orput and Sheriff William Hutton asked Washington County police officials to cease sending drug cases to the crime lab.

"What we do is hold people accountable with the truth, and if somebody raises some significant questions about the truth, we need to be prudent and careful," Orput said Wednesday. "That's what we're doing here."

Orput said he is waiting for the judge's ruling, which is not expected for several months, before deciding whether to recommend that police resume sending evidence to the St. Paul lab.

Washington County prosecutors have charged 146 drug cases so far this year, including some cases that are still pending.

Regardless of the outcome of the hearing, Orput said, jurors who followed the media coverage of the hearing might question evidence from the lab in other cases.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said the department was right to suspend drug testing at the crime lab.

"We'll be taking a very close look at all the cases associated with work that's been done by the St. Paul crime lab, both our pending cases and our past cases," said Backstrom. "We'll need to evaluate some laws in relation to past matters, as to whether it will have impacts on pleas."

Backstrom said he learned of some of the problems with the lab last week, when his department received thousands of pages of documents from defense attorneys in the Dakota County drug case.

Choi said St. Paul police will work with the prosecuting agencies to find other venues in which to conduct drug testing.

The BCA has two crime labs, one in Bemidji and one in St. Paul. Unlike the St. Paul Police Department crime lab, both BCA labs are accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors.

Dakota, Washington and Ramsey County attorneys expect to meet in coming weeks to plan how they should reassess past and pending cases.