St. Paul crime lab to close drug testing unit

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 St. Paul police department has decided not to resume drug testing at its troubled crime lab.

The lab suspended drug testing in July 2012 after public defenders challenged the reliability of the lab's work in court. The closure threw thousands of drug cases into question.

Drug testing for St. Paul police cases will be handled by two employees paid by the city to work at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's crime lab.

Police were to unveil a new plan for the crime lab at a St. Paul City Council meeting Wednesday evening, said Council President Kathy Lantry.

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The City Council already approved $1,023,976 in contingency funding for 2013 to fix the lab, but the police need to present a plan before the money is released. The new plan would spend nearly $400,000 for specialized equipment and building improvements.

The lab will continue to analyze fingerprints and process evidence from crime scenes, Lantry said.

The St. Paul crime lab previously provided drug testing for Ramsey, Washington and Dakota Counties. When the lab suspended testing, the counties' law enforcement agencies began sending evidence from drug cases to the BCA crime lab instead. That arrangement will continue.

Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows said his office has been pleased with the work performed by the BCA. The Dakota County Drug Task Force handles 300 to 500 drug cases each year. Washington County Attorney Pete Orput praised St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith for how he managed the lab controversy.

"I think Tom Smith's leadership was outstanding," Orput said. "He and his command staff got on it right away, didn't prevaricate or play games, looked into it, agreed that changes needed to be made, shut it down right away, and now they're rebuilding it the right way."

Prosecutors are still awaiting an order from a Dakota County judge on whether evidence stored at the St. Paul crime lab could have been contaminated in a way that would make retesting at another lab unreliable. That order is expected within weeks.