For the past few months, there has been significant publicity on a series of problems concerning the San Francisco Police Department crime laboratory. One of the lab’s employees allegedly pilfered small qualities of cocaine for personal use. The police investigated the theft and ultimately advised the District Attorney’s Office and ASCLD/LAB, the program under which the lab was accredited. Once the story broke, the defense bar has been able to have a significant number cases overturned as a result of this situation. This case raises a number of issues: What is the appropriate response to instances of malfeasance and moral turpitude? Whose responsibility is it to deal with these issues when they come to light and more specifically, what should be done? Can bad behavior be eliminated or minimized? Should oversight of forensic service providers be enacted into law?
Under Brady v. Maryland (373 U.S. 83 (1963)), the prosecutor has an affirmative duty to turn over exculpatory evidence as well as information that may impeach a witness’s creditability to the defendant.
Laboratory managers and supervisors have a responsibility to manage their personnel. Both prosecutors and police agencies who manage forensic science laboratories should also be aware of what is going on in their labs. It’s no longer okay to just assume that everything is all right. Some form of affirmative supervision is necessary. Police executives and elected prosecutors need to take an active interest in how well their labs are doing.
Ultimately we are dealing with people and people are not perfect. Mistakes happen, and no manner of checks and balance will change that. However, mistakes can be minimized though adequate quality assurance, lab accreditation, practitioner certification, proficiency testing and continuing education. Ongoing checks can lesson problems.
The big question is: Do such cases call for oversight of forensic service providers? Unquestionably, there will need to be ongoing discussions on the need for oversight of forensic science providers. Is it a federal or a state responsibility? How should it operate?