When I worked night shift patrol one of my favorite arrests had to do with drunk drivers, commonly referred to as Driving While Intoxicated (DWI). I’d observe something peculiar; inability to keep within the marked lanes, exaggerated corrections which were unwarranted as if to avoid imaginary objects in the road, bouncing off curbs and other driving patterns which indicated the driver was under the influence of alcohol or some kind of drug.
After becoming concerned for the well being of the driver and everyone that might come in contact with that driver I’d pull the driver over and conduct a field sobriety test. I’d note whether or not alcohol could be detected on the suspect’s breath, his/her general ability to conduct themselves within an acceptable limit or were they too far gone to be safe. Could they understand basic questions and come back with reasonable answers; simple things like the alphabet were impossible for folks who were intoxicated.
Once I was convinced of their being intoxicated the State of Texas had these folks take a breathalyzer test to verify my observations. If they passed the test they got a free ride home; but that was very rare in deed. Most of the folks I put in jail for DWI had more than enough and then some and the breath test served only to back up my observations.
Quite some time after I retired Lawrence Tailor wrote about a scandal in the Houston area, the breathalyzer machines used to convict DWI suspects had not been properly tested; but they had been certified as if they had. The idea that a person responsible for keeping the public’s trust above reproach had intentionally lied tainted every thing connected with the chain of evidence.
“DPS said she altered electronic records to make it appear she’d tested and adjusted the calibrations of machines when she had not.”
Tailor’s article included other alarming information; apparently Houston wasn’t the only place where testing equipment related to DWI arrests had not been properly handled.
“…a state breathalyzer inspector who was “fixing” machines in Miami-Dade County by simply deleting evidence of malfunctions. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement fired her — but not until after she had cast doubt on as many as 10,000 DUI convictions”
Sloppy work is one thing; but this went beyond sloppy. Their criminally negligent actions undermined thousands of criminal cases. All the honest efforts to keep dangerous drunk drivers off the road would be thrown out of court; reasonable doubt had been established because of a handful of bad apples in the evidence chain.
In a separate quagmire around the same time, as reported in the Houston Chronicle, the crime lab responsible for testing DNA in the Houston area was actually closed because their work was done so poorly.
“Months before the troubled Houston crime lab shuttered its DNA division for a second time, analysts and a supervisor warned investigators of continuing problems, including contamination, questionable procedures, and lost evidence, according to a police investigative report obtained by the Houston Chronicle.”
“Since the 2002 exposure of shoddy work and poorly trained personnel, HPD's crime lab has been mired in a forensics controversy that has cast doubt on thousands of cases and led to the exoneration of three men convicted with faulty evidence.”
At what point does the public begin to seriously doubt the validity of any evidence submitted in a criminal case? As I mentioned earlier, it wouldn’t take much for a defense attorney to create “reasonable doubt” considering this problem had been known about at least since 2002; six years and the problems continued without being corrected. Getting a conviction is tough enough without having folks contaminating the chain of evidence with sloppy documentation or worse, wrongdoing or shenanigans worthy of criminal charges.
More recently, as reported by Bridget Murphy in an A/P story this past week, Boston may have even bigger problems with their crime lab; the possibility of hundreds if not thousands of criminal cases being tossed out of court.
“A chemist at the center of a drug lab testing scandal admitted she faked results for two to three years, forged signatures and skipped proper procedures, a police report shows.”
“Anne Goldbach, forensic services director for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which oversees the provision of legal representation for indigent people, said the new documents show the problems at the Hinton State Laboratory are more troubling than originally believed. She said it appears there was unsupervised access to the lab’s evidence office and evidence safe.”
The movie, Mrs. Winterbourne, came to mind; something to do with criminal investigations and Boston, perhaps… Each family member, including the chauffer stepped forward to take the blame for a homicide of a sorry good for nothing black mailing old boy friend fearing that one of them had actually done it. The real shooter had already been captured and confessed; but none of the “shooter wannabes” knew that or had details of the incident; “I shot him in the heart”, “I shot him twice in the head”, I shot him from across the room”, and so on until it became clear none of them had any idea what had gone down.
The detective conducting the investigation came out with a great line, “If I’m ever accused of a crime I’d want to be a member of this family” (or something close).
If you happened to be charged with a crime in the Boston area there’s a better than average chance you could get off the hook. (Houston and Dade County Florida would be in the same sinking boat) There it is in black and white, Anne Goldbach, forensic services director has admitted there was “unsupervised access to the lab’s evidence office and evidence safe.” In other words the chain of evidence is now in question; anyone could have tampered with or removed critical evidence which now cannot be used in court. Worse, if critical evidence from that particular lab was used there are grounds for dismissal because the fruit of the tree has been tainted.
The public deserves better, much better. Our criminal justice system depends on the public’s trust; something which may take years to restore, and all because of a few bad apples.
This article has been cross posted to The Moral Liberal, a publication whose banner reads, “Defending The Judeo-Christian Ethic, Limited Government, & The American Constitution”.