St. Paul crime lab to get independent review

St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith
St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith in a file photo.
MPR File Photo/Jennifer Simonson

St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith has authorized an independent review of the troubled police crime lab, which shut down drug testing after employees acknowledged the lab lacked written standard operating procedures and may have relied on equipment contaminated with illegal drugs.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, and Washington County Attorney Peter Orput announced the independent review after a Monday meeting with St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith.

"We have been assured that an independent review will be conducted that seeks to identify problems in past narcotics cases as well as any other possible issues within the Saint Paul Crime Lab," a joint statement by the three county attorneys said. "Most importantly, the review will provide critical information to fix any problems that come to light as a part of this review."

St. Paul Police Department spokesman Howie Padilla confirmed that two outside entities will conduct the review. He declined to provide the names of the independent reviewers because, he said, the contracts have not yet been finalized.

One outside agency, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, has previously declined to investigate the crime lab's operations, according to a BCA spokesperson who has said the agency does not have jurisdiction over the police lab.

Crime labs in Minnesota are not required to follow any specific procedures and are not required to be accredited. There is no routine oversight of non-accredited crime labs, including the St. Paul lab. A state board established by the state Legislature in 2006 to investigate complaints about crime labs has no funding and no authority to impose sanctions or require changes.

Chief Smith shut down drug testing at the St. Paul lab on July 18 and vowed to review the lab's procedures, but he did not mention an independent review. Instead, he appointed Colleen Luna, the police department's head of internal affairs, to lead the crime lab and oversee the inquiry. Sgt. Shay Shackle, the previous lab director, was reassigned to a different position outside of the lab.

In a July 18 statement announcing the suspension of drug testing, Smith said the department would "review and reorganize the leadership structure within the department's crime lab, explore additional technical expertise in the department's crime lab," and "work with our partners to review pending narcotics cases.

The lab's procedures came under scrutiny by public defenders representing Matthew Jensen, a Rochester man charged with fifth-degree drug possession. Jensen's attorneys are asking a Dakota County District Court judge to block crime lab evidence from entering the court because the lab's work is not reliable.

Some of the most damaging allegations about the lab's operations came from its own employees who testified in Dakota County District Court in July. The employees said the lab keeps minimal records of the testing it performs and does not follow any written standard operating procedures. The lab employees also acknowledged the lab's results may have been contaminated by a dirty machine clogged with a white substance that may have been cocaine. The lab employees told the court they did not test the substance to determine what it was, and instead asked a maintenance worker to unclog the machine several times.

The allegations raised questions about thousands of other drug cases processed by the St. Paul lab. In the weeks since the lab stopped drug testing, prosecutors have offered more generous plea agreements to defendants charged with drug offenses. In some cases, authorities have sent evidence to the BCA for retesting.

The hearing in the Dakota County case continues Wednesday and Friday. The judge's ruling is expected by the end of the year.

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