People’s opinions and memories are subjective, which is why in the court of law, science and factual evidence is often the nail in the coffin, so to speak. If DNA evidence from a suspect matches the one said to have been found at the scene of the crime, even when the suspect “does not remember” being there, doubt gives way in favor of the DNA evidence. However, what if there was reason to believe that the lab mislabeled the samples, or that the machine that ran the tests were never cleaned or not properly calibrated? Now, what was once factual evidence is now less than reliable, perhaps even completely inaccurate.
Lab technicians are human. Therefore, no matter how careful one may be, it is undisputed that there is always the chance of human error. Unfortunately, however, there is difference between innocent human error and a concerted effort to undermine forensic testing in criminal cases, including DUI cases.
If you have read our articles in the past, it should come as no surprise that another forensic lab, this time in New Jersey, has made a conscious effort to allow inaccurate evidence to pass through the lab doors and entered in court to convict drivers in drunk driving cases within that state.
Many of the breathalyzers used across the country are manufactured by Alcotest. This machine, although fairly accurate when used correctly, needs to be calibrated to ensure its accuracy. Sergeant Marc Dennis of the New Jersey State Police’s Drug and Alcohol Testing Unit was responsible for conducting tests twice a year on machines for five different counties to determine if recalibration was needed and to administer the recalibration where necessary. It was found that Dennis did not perform the required calibrations and, to make matters worse, he also falsely certified the accuracy of the machines in the paperwork filed with the state. Thousands of people in the state of New Jersey were convicted based on the results of these uncalibrated machines. Dennis was criminally charged with misconduct and tampering with public records in September of 2018 and the New Jersey State Administrative Office of the Courts was notified by the attorney general’s office that over 20,000 breath samples were in question.
The New Jersey Supreme Court ordered an extensive hearing regarding the failure to follow proper calibration procedures by Sergeant Dennis. The state Division of Criminal Justice brought the charge, but the division’s director stated that the omission of the calibration step does not undermine the credibility of any of the State Police test results. However, the New Jersey Supreme Court determined in their opinion issued in December 2018 that the some 20,000 breath tests done by the uncalibrated machines could not be trusted.
All of those cases will need to be reviewed, and there is a high probability that many of those cases will be dismissed.
Whether Dennis’s actions (or lack thereof) came from laziness or as a means to advance his career, such misconduct is sadly not uncommon. There have been other reported cases of forensic misconduct in the New Jersey State Police, as well as other states such as Massachusetts, Oregon and Texas. Although in Dennis’s case, his actions were noticed by a supervisor who is said to have “immediately reported to internal affairs,” the truth is his actions went unnoticed for years.
Back in 2009, the U.S. National Research Council gave a report regarding forensic practices across the country. What they found was a lack of accreditation for crime labs and lack of certification for forensic scientists. Instead of having the ability to rely on evidence being produced by forensic labs, whose precise job it is to produce accurate scientific evidence, we’re left wondering if further investigation needs to be done to determine if the lab is doing what it should be doing to ensure the reliability of the evidence it is processing.
Movement towards forensic reform slowly gained momentum after this report and in 2016, the U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology relayed similar concerns in a report and requested an independent oversight commission for labs across the country. Unfortunately for the reform movement, then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, shut down the National Commission on Forensic Science in 2017, effectively also shutting down the idea for a national independent oversight committee.
Although we may have stalled, or possibly even have taken a few steps back, with regard to ensuring the reliability of forensic labs throughout the country, hopefully states will take these scandals as a wake-up call to adopt better measures of ensuring reliability of their forensic testing. In the meantime, the legal system runs the risk of wrongfully convicting drunk drivers, or any criminal suspect for that matter, and defense counsel should do everything in their power to make sure that faulty evidence be identified and thrown out.