St. Paul crime lab problems could go beyond drug testing

St. Paul Police Department
The St. Paul crime lab is housed at the St. Paul Police Department in St. Paul, Minn. Wednesday, July 25, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The troubled St. Paul Police Department crime lab kept some of its evidence in a hallway, according to internal police documents submitted Thursday to Dakota County District Court.

The latest revelations raise questions about whether the problems at the lab extend beyond a lack of standard written procedures for testing evidence for illegal drugs. Until last month, the lab performed drug testing for the Minnesota State Patrol and law enforcement in Ramsey, Washington and Dakota Counties. It stopped drug testing after employees testified in a Dakota County case that the lab lacked standard operating procedures and may have relied on equipment contaminated with illegal drugs.

The lab continues to process crime scene evidence and perform fingerprint analysis. Police Chief Thomas Smith appointed a new lab director last month and launched an internal review of the crime lab's operations.

Attorneys representing Matthew Jensen, a Rochester man charged with drug possession, submitted the batch of documents Thursday in preparation for court hearings next week. The documents include notes from meetings between defense attorneys, prosecutors, and crime lab employees. According to the notes, while the lab kept illegal drugs in a vault inside the locked lab area, it stored other evidence in a hallway.

It is unclear whether the hallway is located within the lab itself. The lab is not accessible to the public and requires two separate keys for entry. Lab employees refused a defense attorney's request for a drawing of the lab layout to determine whether the evidence was secure in the hallway, defense attorney Lauri Traub said in a letter sent Thursday to District Court Judge Kathryn Messerich, the judge assigned to the Jensen case.

Document: Read the internal report: 'The Question of Accreditation.'

The documents also include an internal report, dated June 19, 2012, prepared by St. Paul police officer and crime lab employee Jamie Sipes. The report, titled 'The Question of Accreditation', explains the different accreditation options for crime labs. Minnesota does not require accreditation for crime labs, and most, including the St. Paul Police Department lab, are not accredited.

Sipes, in his report, explained that accreditation would cost at least $10,000. His description of possible expenses reveals the lab stored evidence in hallways within the crime lab, instead of in a separate locked area.

"Other costs could include necessary changes to the facility," Sipes wrote. "For example, the doors would have to be replaced for both the evidence processing and chemical laboratories. Secured space would need to be identified for evidence as no evidence can be un-secured in hall ways."

Traub plans to call Sipes to testify in the case next week. In her letter to Judge Messerich, Traub wrote that "it appears given the report from Officer Sipes, along with our meeting with him that the general security of evidence in that lab is highly suspect and relevant for our hearing."

In preparation for the hearing, Traub interviewed Sipes on Aug. 15, according to Traub's letter.

"Officer Sipes stated he was concerned about evidence in the hallway and that evidence is not locked or secured beyond the double door system at the entrance to the entire crime lab," Traub wrote in the letter to Judge Messerich," Traub wrote.

"Officer Sipes stated they have just upgraded their evidence procedures and there is now a clipboard to sign in and out evidence," the letter said. "He did not say when this upgrade occurred."

St. Paul Police Department spokesperson Howie Padilla did not return a call seeking comment Friday. Traub, the defense attorney, said she would not comment because the case is still pending.

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom declined to respond to questions about the court documents. "We will be filing our response to the defense attorney's recently filed documents next week," Backstrom wrote in an email to MPR News on Friday. "However, we are not going to comment upon the merits of defense counsel's claims regarding this case until after the evidence pertaining thereto is presented in the courtroom."

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