Legislation would require crime labs to be accredited

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

State lawmakers are considering a bill that would require accreditation of publicly-financed crime labs.

The proposed legislation was prompted by concerns about faulty work at the unaccredited St. Paul police crime lab, which suspended drug testing last year after defense attorneys in Dakota County exposed the lab's failure to follow basic scientific procedures.

"The ultimate goal is to assure the public and the participants in the judicial process that we have done all that we can to assure that the results of forensic laboratory analyses are reliable," said state Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, the bill's chief author.

The bill would require all forensic labs funded with public dollars to be accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors or a similar organization. Accredited labs are required to follow standard operating procedures and adhere to basic scientific guidelines. The bill would apply only to labs that analyze evidence. Smaller labs that collect evidence and send it elsewhere for testing would not be affected.

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Minnesota currently has four publicly-funded, accredited crime labs. They include labs operated by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in St. Paul and Bemidji, and labs run by the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office and the Minneapolis Police Department.

Accreditation often requires lengthy paperwork and site visits. Labs pay application fees that range from $500 to $2,500, depending on the number of employees, and site visit fees of several thousand dollars.

There is no official list of crime labs in Minnesota that would be affected by the legislation. The state Forensic Laboratory Advisory Board, which was created to oversee crime labs but has no funding or authority, estimates there are a handful of unaccredited crime labs that perform fingerprint testing and other less complicated tests.

Crime lab
St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith answers questions from the media Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 about a report that found problems with the department's crime lab work.
MPR File Photo/Jennifer Simonson

The Tri County Regional Forensic Laboratory, which serves Anoka, Wright and Sherburne counties, began the accreditation process more than a year ago. It expects to be accredited by late 2013 or early 2014.

Latz's bill, currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee, would require labs to be accredited by Jan. 1, 2014. However, Latz said he plans to amend it to allow labs more time to comply. The amended bill, Latz said, will include one deadline for labs to apply for accreditation and a separate deadline for labs to receive accreditation.

The St. Paul police lab has already announced it plans to seek accreditation for fingerprint analysis. Chief Thomas Smith has said there are no immediate plans to resume drug testing.

Two independent consultants hired last year to review the St. Paul lab's work found widespread errors. Lab employees failed to accurately record the weights of drugs, filed illegible reports, relied on dirty equipment and lacked a basic understanding of science, the consultants found.

The St. Paul lab, which served Ramsey, Dakota and Washington counties, suspended drug testing in July after public defenders challenged the reliability of the lab's work in several Dakota County drug cases. The legal battle over the evidence in those cases is expected to continue for months.

At issue is whether evidence that passed through the St. Paul crime lab could have been contaminated in a way that would make any re-testing by another lab unreliable.

Public defenders and prosecutors are awaiting a ruling on the issue from Dakota County Judge Kathryn Messerich as they consider how to proceed with thousands of past convictions. The next hearing is scheduled for May 3.