St. Paul crime lab work casts shadow on another drug case

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

The work of the troubled St. Paul Police crime lab has come under question in yet another drug case.

The case is one of more than a hundred in which evidence was sent to the state-run Bureau of Criminal Apprehension lab for retesting after the St. Paul crime lab suspended drug testing in July amid allegations of shoddy science.

The case marks the second time the findings of the St. Paul crime lab have been contradicted by the BCA's retesting.

The latest case began when Dakota County authorities asked the St. Paul crime lab to determine the identity of a pill confiscated from a suspect, said Dakota County prosecutor Phil Prokopowicz. Even before the lab tested the pill, law enforcement officials assumed it was a commonly abused medication, based on the pill's color and markings, and the defendant was charged with fifth-degree possession.

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Much to the surprise of law enforcement officials, the St. Paul lab found the pill was not an illegal drug or a controlled substance, Prokopowicz said.

After the problems with the crime lab surfaced, authorities sent the pill to the state crime lab for retesting. The state crime lab reached the opposite conclusion. They found the pill was a controlled substance after all, just as officers had originally assumed, Prokopowicz said.

Prokopowicz is reviewing the test results to determine how the St. Paul crime lab and the state crime lab could test the same pill and reach opposite conclusions. He said he learned of the discrepancy last week. The case is pending.

"There may be a perfectly logical reason," he said.

The St. Paul Police Department has opened an internal investigation into the case, said spokesperson Howie Padilla. The lab's drug testing division remains closed.

"We're very limited in what we can say, except for the fact that there is an internal investigation going on," Padilla said. "Chief Smith has been consistent in saying, since this all began, that he wants thorough investigations and he wants the correct answers."

For years, the St. Paul crime lab performed drug testing in thousands of cases for Ramsey, Washington and Dakota counties. Since the lab suspended drug testing, prosecutors have dismissed some charges and offered more generous plea agreements in many cases.

The incident raises more questions about the reliability of the St. Paul lab. It's the second time the state crime lab has performed the same test and reached a different conclusion.

The first case involved evidence that the St. Paul police lab determined was methamphetamine. The state crime lab tested the evidence and found it was not an illegal drug. Ramsey County prosecutors dropped the charge against defendant Pahoua Yang and asked St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith to review the case.

The problems at the lab first came to public attention in July when two public defenders challenged the lab's work in several Dakota County drug cases. Lab employees testified they did not follow any standard written procedures and may have relied on equipment contaminated by cocaine.

Defense attorneys Lauri Traub and Christine Funk argued the crime lab's work is not reliable and any evidence that passed through the lab could have been contaminated. They have asked Judge Kathryn Messerich to block suspected drugs from being admitted as evidence in four drug possession cases.

The next hearing on all four cases is scheduled for Tuesday.