St. Paul police chief suspends crime lab drug testing

8:18 AM, Jul 19, 2012   |    comments
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - The St. Paul police department is temporarily suspending drug testing in its crime lab.

St. Paul police chief Thomas Smith told Mayor Chris Coleman about the suspension in a letter today. This comes after two crime lab workers and the director of the lab said this week that the lab does not follow any written procedures for drug testing and does not document most of the steps they take when testing evidence for illegal drugs.

Smith's letter says he will "review and reorganize the leadership structure within the department's crime lab," among other steps.

"This is not looked upon as a one-time fix and we look forward to continuing our tradition of service," Smith said. "We will continue to keep our partners advised of future changes as we look toward other mid-range and long-term goals for our crime lab."

Earlier today, Washington County Attorney Pete Orput and Sheriff William Hutton asked Washington County police officials to stop sending drug cases to the crime lab until a judge rules on whether the lab's work is reliable.

The St. Paul crime lab's problems came to light during a hearing in the case of Matthew Jensen, a Rochester man charged with drug possession. His defense attorneys have asked a Dakota county judge to throw out drug evidence from the St. Paul crime lab because they say the lab's work is unreliable.

The two lab employees also testified that the drug testing in the Jensen case may have been contaminated.

Washington county's Orput said he and Hutton emailed the law enforcement officials Wednesday and recommended evidence be sent to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for drug testing while the hearing continues.

The BCA has two crime labs, one in Bemidji and one in St. Paul. Unlike the St. Paul Police Department crime lab, both BCA labs are accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors.

"What we do is hold people accountable with the truth, and if somebody raises some significant questions about the truth, we need to be prudent and careful," Orput said. "That's what we're doing here."

Washington County prosecutors have charged 146 drug cases so far this year, including some cases that are still pending.

Orput said he is waiting for the judge's ruling, which is not expected for several months, before deciding whether to recommend that police resume sending evidence to the St. Paul lab.

Regardless of the outcome of the hearing, Orput said, jurors who followed the media coverage of the hearing might question evidence from the lab in other cases.

"That would be tough, because I think most jurors who read that would have real concerns," Orput said.

The St. Paul crime lab also processes drug evidence for Ramsey and Dakota counties.

Dakota county issued a news release this afternoon saying the Dakota County Drug Task Force will "suspend sending cases to the St. Paul crime lab at this time."

The release, from Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom also said that over the last 10 years of using the crime lab "less than half of those cases actually involved laboratory testing."

By Madeleine Baran, MPR News
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