St. Paul crime lab problems 'a wake-up call for everybody'

Minnesota BCA
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in St. Paul, Minn. Wednesday, July 25, 2012. Prosecutors have asked the BCA to re-test evidence from the St. Paul Police Department crime lab, but so far, the BCA has only agreed to re-test evidence in first-degree drug cases.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

A clearer picture is emerging from the legal fallout of the shutdown of drug testing at the St. Paul Police Department crime lab.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors have spent the past week trying to get a better sense of how to proceed after troubling revelations about problems in the St. Paul crime lab. State public defender John Stuart called a meeting of chief public defenders Wednesday to discuss what to do next.

"I think this hearing last week was a wake-up call for everybody," Stuart sid. "Everybody in the justice system has got something at stake here and the public has something at stake because people need to be able to trust the crime lab."

County attorneys in Ramsey, Washington, and Dakota Counties plan to hold a similar meeting next week.

The problems at the crime lab, acknowledged by lab employees in court testimony last week, have thrown thousands of past and pending cases into question. The St. Paul Police Department crime lab provided drug testing for the Minnesota State Patrol and law enforcement in Dakota, Washington and Ramsey Counties. People currently facing charges of drug possession could receive lesser sentences as prosecutors and defense attorneys look for ways to resolve cases.

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Prosecutors say each case will likely be handled a bit differently. Defendants may be facing other, non-drug related charges or may already be in prison serving a separate sentence.

St. Paul Police Department
The St. Paul Police Department crime lab is housed at the St. Paul Police Department in St. Paul, Minn. Wednesday, July 25, 2012. A clearer picture is emerging from the legal fallout of the shutdown of drug testing at the crime lab after testimony from two employees and the head of the lab acknowledged that the lab does not follow any written procedures when testing evidence for illegal drugs and does not require lab analysts to attend trainings on how to conduct drug testing.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

In some cases, there may be other evidence that implicates the defendant. For example, some law enforcement officials perform "presumptive tests" on suspected drugs to decide whether to send the evidence to the crime lab. Those presumptive tests could now play a more important role in the courtroom, although public defenders say they may challenge that evidence as well.

Defendants will also play a key role in the path forward. Some defendants may want to reach a plea agreement to avoid a lengthy legal process, particularly if the plea agreement does not include prison or jail time, defense attorneys said. Others, particularly those with no previous felony convictions, may decide to challenge the lab's findings.

"If they're going to negotiate something that results in a permanent felony on your record, I don't know that I would be jumping up and down to do that," said Charlie Clippert, a criminal defense attorney in private practice in the Twin Cities.

Lawyers on both sides are taking a triage approach. First, they will decide what to do about pending cases. Prosecutors in Ramsey and Washington Counties said they have asked the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to retest evidence from the St. Paul lab, but so far, prosecutors say, the BCA has only agreed to re-test evidence in first-degree drug cases. BCA spokesperson Jill Oliveira said the lab first needs to consider whether it can handle the increased demand.

That leaves most drug cases in limbo. Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said it will be difficult to find a lab willing to retest small amounts of evidence in low-level drug cases. Instead, he said he has advised his prosecutors to negotiate plea agreements with defendants.

"My office has proposed very fair negotiations with the defense that if they accept responsibility, we will waive some of the guidelines that we typically would seek for punishment and look for a more favorable outcome for the defendants in these cases for the sole reason that we need to resolve these quickly and move on," Orput said.

Stuart, the public defender, said that if evidence is retested, public defenders will ask to have clients released from jail.

''We believe it's not fair to people who don't have the money to post bail to tell them that they have to sit in jail because the lab didn't do such a hot job and so now we're going to wait,'' Stuart said.

Minnesota BCA
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in St. Paul, Minn. Wednesday, July 25, 2012. A spokesperson for the BCA said before proceeding with drug re-testing, the crime lab needs to consider whether it is able to handle the increased workload.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Some pending cases have no evidence left over to test. Ramsey and Washington County Attorneys say they will likely dismiss those cases if there is no other evidence. Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom declined to comment on how he will proceed.

Once lawyers have resolved the pending cases, the next challenge will be what to do about thousands of past convictions. It's unlikely all of those convictions will be overturned, lawyers on both sides said. In part, that's because most drug cases are settled through plea agreements and never go to trial. Defendants would now need to convince judges to overlook their guilty pleas.

Orput, the Washington County Attorney, said if defendants change their stories in court, he will consider filing perjury charges.

''We don't want to turn this into a game, if you will, where ... someone discovers that there was a problem with the lab and so now everybody thinks that's going to get them to get their convictions disposed of due to that problem," Orput said. "I would argue that's not going to happen, not in my office.''

Criminal defense attorney Joe Tamburino said that isn't fair because when the plea was made, everyone assumed the test result was positive for drugs.

"When you're a defense attorney and you say to your client, 'Look, the test came back that it was cocaine,' and the client says, 'Boy, I didn't think it was, I really didn't, but if the test says it is, OK, I'll plead guilty because I'm going to rely on the test, that's not lying,' " Tamburino said.

However, Tamburino said some clients would rather put the conviction behind them and not appeal.

The legal fallout could also reach far beyond the Twin Cities. Stuart, the state public defender, said his attorneys will investigate other crime labs in Minnesota to look for similar problems. There are about 20 crime labs in Minnesota, Stuart said, and most are not accredited.

"The St. Paul lab could be the tip of the iceberg, and at this point we don't know yet how big the iceberg is."

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