New Jersey Forensic Lab Scandal Likely to Affect Thousands of DUI Cases

Wednesday, February 6th, 2019

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.

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Oregon State Crime Lab Backlog May Affect DUI Cases

Thursday, January 24th, 2019

The Oregon State Police crime lab is behind on its testing, way behind, and it’s affecting DUI cases in the state.

The chemical tests for motorists accused of driving under the influence has a backlog of about 14 months. While that is bad, it’s better than some departments within the lab such as property crimes, where they no longer process DNA for property crimes such as theft to allow more focus on other cases, such as sexual assault. This is problematic since the statute of limitations (the time period for which a prosecutor can file a criminal case) on a case might, and in many cases will run, without having the evidence tested.

Oregon’s Linn County District Attorney’s office handled more than 500 DUI cases in 2018. Alcohol related cases can use breathalyzers as evidence without the need for a crime lab. However, not all of the DUI cases that the DA’s office handles are alcohol related. About half of the DUI cases in Linn County involve other drugs where levels are determined by urine tests. The current backlog of 14 months is still within the standard statute of limitations of two years, so cases can still likely be filed. In its current state and with crime never ceasing, the crime lab is undoubtedly overworked, understaffed, and limited with what they can do. Therefore, the statute of limitations for some of those DUI’s may too come and go, which is unfair to both the prosecutors as well as the accused.

Although representatives of the District Attorney’s office were unaware of any cases directly being impacted by the turnaround time of the lab, Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson said, “The turnaround time for the lab is impacting our office because we’re having to wait for extended periods of time. But it’s critical for me to note that the [Oregon State police] crime lab, no matter how well they do their job, they have a finite capacity. and when that finite capacity is exceeded, the impact for us is the delay on having the lab work done.”

However, Haroldson also went on to say that, although a statute of limitation may not have run, suspects should not have to wait that long to be formally charged.

“Part of seeking justice is doing all we can to make sure that our systems are fair to everyone, including the accused. Long delays do not represent the best work that we can do if we were properly funded,” said Haroldson.

It was also noted that the testing delays can also lead to increased risks to the public as motorists who were suspected of driving under the influence will not have their licenses suspended until the charges have at least been filed. One county had at least four drivers who were arrested twice for DUI during 2018 and whose cases were yet to be settled as their lab results were still pending months later.

With Oregon’s legalization of recreational marijuana in 2015, the number of requests for toxicology tests have only continued to increase. As Oregon’s population also continues to rise, it can be anticipated that the growth in demand for the lab’s services will also continue to rise. Although science and technology have evolved to make some of the processes go much smoother and faster, toxicology result turnaround times still take much longer than our TV crime solvers make us believe. What’s more, costs are still too high to effectively rely on outsourcing as part of the solution.

Amanda Dalton, a lobbyist on behalf of the Oregon District Attorney Association, says that the association is hoping to change the backlog situation through current legislation.

“We believe delayed testing is a crisis as it relates to DUI prosecution and overall community safety and that [the Oregon State Police] is doing all they can with the resources they currently have,” said Dalton.

Although the Oregon District Attorneys Association realizes that the legislation currently proposed will not solve the problem, they maintain hope that it will, at a minimum, start the conversation that will eventually lead to the appropriate funding to fix the issues.

 

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Supreme Court to Decide if Cops Can Draw Blood from Unconscious Driver

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear and decide a case that challenges a Wisconsin law that allows law enforcement to withdraw blood from an unconscious driver that they suspect was driving under the influence.

The case stems from the 2013 arrest of Gerald Mitchell in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin. After receiving reports that the driver of a gray van may have been intoxicated, officer Alex Jaeger pulled Mitchell over. A pre-arrest breathalyzer revealed that Mitchell had a blood alcohol content of 0.24 percent, three times the legal limit. Officer Jaeger then arrested Mitchell and drove him to a hospital to withdraw a blood sample.

By the time Mitchell and officer Jaeger had arrived at the hospital, Mitchell had lost consciousness and could not be woken. While at the hospital, Mitchell appeared to be too intoxicated to answer questions from a blood-withdrawal consent form. Notwithstanding his unconscious state, blood was taken from Mitchell without a warrant and without his expressed consent.

The blood test revealed that Mitchell’s blood alcohol content was 0.22 percent.

At trial, Mitchell challenged the results arguing that the warrantless blood withdrawal amounted to an unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the 4th Amendment. Mitchell’s suppression motion, however, was denied and the jury convicted him of driving under the influence.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court took up the case to address whether implied consent under “implied consent laws” (laws that require a person to submit to a breath or a blood test if they are legally allowed to drive and if law enforcement has probable cause to believe a person is driving under the influence) is constitutionally sufficient to allow a blood withdraw without expressed consent while a driver is unconscious.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court held that, by virtue of Mitchell’s mere possession of a driver’s license, Mitchell had already impliedly provided consent to allow law enforcement to withdraw blood if law enforcement had the probable cause to arrest him on suspicion of driving under the influence. To boot, the court concluded that officer Jaeger had the probable cause to arrest Mitchell on suspicion of driving under the influence, and therefore law enforcement could withdraw blood from Mitchell while he was unconscious.

In its opinion, the court stated, “…we conclude that consent given by drivers whose conduct falls within the parameters of [Wisconsin’s Implied Consent law], is constitutionally sufficient consent to withstand Fourth Amendment scrutiny…” Furthermore, the court concluded that Mitchell, having consumed alcohol to the point of unconsciousness, “…forfeited all opportunity, including the statutory opportunity…to withdraw his consent previously given; and therefore, [Wisconsin’s Implied Consent law] applied, which under the totality of circumstances reasonably permitted drawing Mitchell’s blood. Accordingly, we affirm Mitchell’s convictions.”

The United States Supreme Court is set to hear Mitchell’s case and it could be decided by late June of this year.

In 2016, the United States Supreme Court ruled that it was lawful for states to impose penalties for drunk driving suspects who refused to take a breath test under the state’s Implied Consent law. However, the Court went on to conclude that while their “prior opinions have referred approvingly to the general concept of implied consent laws,” that “there must be a limit to the consequences to which motorists may be deemed to have consented to only those conditions that are ‘reasonable’ in that they have a ‘nexus’ to the privilege of driving.” Thus, Implied Consent laws that punish people who refuse a blood test are too intrusive and, therefore, unconstitutional.

“[If] criminal penalties for refusal are unlawful because they too heavily burden the exercise of the Fourth Amendment right to refuse a blood test, can it really be that the state can outright abolish the very same right?” Mitchell’s attorneys asked.

Mitchell’s attorney’s question is a valid and one that I hope the Court concludes the answer is “no.”

 

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Struggles of Finding a Legal Limit and Test for Marijuana

Thursday, January 10th, 2019

During this past New Year’s holiday, the Los Angeles Police Department utilized a new portable oral test that is able to check for the presence of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, and other drugs in a person’s system. In their attempt to start aggressively enforcing impaired driving laws, they decided to use this test at New Years’ checkpoints even though the test had only been used about 50 times prior. Prosecutors hope that this eight-minute oral fluids test will eventually become an effective indicator of impairment of drugs, though they have yet to use any results from these tests as evidence in their cases.

Although this test does have the capability of checking for the presence of THC, which is the component most identified with the use of marijuana and which causes the psychoactive effects of marijuana, it does not test for impairment from THC. However, since the legalization of recreational marijuana in several states, experts have struggled to determine an appropriate level of use that would consistently label a person to be “impaired.”

It is undoubtedly important for law makers to be presented with research that helps to determine at what level of THC presence that will cause a person’s impairment. Without this, the current legal terminology of “under the influence” is extremely subjective. Unlike the research with alcohol that determined that there is a strong correlation between impairment and blood alcohol levels higher than 0.08, the research with THC levels are still inconclusive. Both neuroscientists and pharmacologists are having difficulties determining to what extent the drug can impair a person’s ability to drive as well as an appropriate way to measure it. Private companies are currently working on a breathalyzer to test for impairment similar to that used in alcohol related cases, however, the results are still not as definitive as the tests used to determine impairment of alcohol.

In the interim, the Legislature’s Special Commission on Operating Under the Influence and Impaired Driving is recommending mandatory drug testing for stoned drivers under the threat of license suspension. Law enforcement insists that this is the best way to keep stoned drivers off the road.

The threat of losing one’s license may be an effective way to keep stoned drivers off the streets, but at this point in time, it also comes with a multitude of issues, including those that make the tests unconstitutional. For one, it is still unconstitutional to force a blood draw or saliva test without a warrant.

An additional issue is that unlike alcohol that metabolizes fairly quickly and at a measurable rate, THC can last in one’s body for days, even weeks. The “recommended” tests may undoubtedly accurately measure the amount of THC in the body, but there is still no measurement for impairment. ACLU Field Director Matt Allen, who is a member of the special commission stated, “We want to ensure that if motorists are faced with penalties such as losing their license for not taking a drug test that that test is scientifically proven to measure impairment.” However, he was the lone “no” vote on the recommendation.

The scientific community is undoubtedly working on the answer. Hopefully sooner rather than later, the public will be presented with a fairly accurate level of what impairment under the influence of marijuana means. Without it, it is not only law enforcement who is at a loss for efficiently assessing impairment, but all responsible users who lack a point of reference of this newly legal drug to make sure that they are not inadvertently putting the public in danger. Until then, we cannot arbitrarily punish people who have THC in their system, but are not impaired by it.

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20,667 DUI Cases in New Jersey Tainted by Bad Breathalyzers Results

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

It was only a couple of months ago that tens of thousands of breathalyzer results were called into question in Massachusetts, affecting countless DUI cases. It appears New Jersey is dealing with a similar issue now that the state’s highest court ruled that 20,667 breathalyzer results were faulty and therefore inadmissible in the DUI cases where the results were used to secure convictions.

The ruling stems from a case that begun more than two years ago after the attorney for a woman by the name of Eileen Cassidy was notified by the state that the breath results were possibly faulty. At the time the attorney was notified, Cassidy was two weeks into a 180-day sentence on a third-time DUI. Cassidy then filed a lawsuit which led to the appointment of a special master to determine the reliability of the breathalyzer results.

Cassidy’s lawsuit led to the charging of Sergeant Marc W. Dennis with falsely certifying that he had followed proper calibration procedures when calibrating breathalyzers used in DUI stops. The court, in its recent ruling, concluded that the results of the breathalyzers calibrated by Dennis, called Alcotests, were untrustworthy.

“Confidence in the reliability of instruments of technology used as evidence is of paramount importance,” Justice Walter Timpone wrote for the court. “Unfortunately, alleged human failings have cast doubt on the calibration process.”

In addition to determining that the results of the breathalyzers were faulty, the court also vacated Cassidy’s conviction. Unfortunately, Cassidy passed away from cancer in March, never allowing her to see her case vacated by the court.

That, however, didn’t stop her attorney, Michael R. Hobbie, from continuing to fight for her.

While the court vacated Cassidy’s conviction, the New Jersey Supreme Court failed to enunciate in its ruling who could challenge their conviction or exactly how to challenge their conviction.

“With respect to the other 20,667, their cases weren’t vacated,” said Hobbie. “They just going to get notified that the breath test in their case has been deemed inadmissible and they should seek whatever remedy is available to them.”

County prosecutors have already notified thousands of people whose cases may have been affected by the faulty breathalyzer results. The New Jersey Supreme Court, however, has now ordered state authorities to notify everyone whose faulty breath test was used in their case that the results are inadmissible.

“We’ll be issuing guidance shortly for our county prosecutors and municipal prosecutors over how to handle those cases,” said Gurbir Grewal, the New Jersey attorney general.

Although the court declaring the results of the breathalyzers inadmissible is a step in the right direction, ask yourself: How much is it going to cost those people affected by the faulty breathalyzer to legally challenge their conviction (after many, I’m sure, have already spent thousands of dollars to fight the underlying DUI charge in the first place)? As I’ve pointed out many times in previous posts and as I’m sure you’re aware, lawyers are not cheap. Should these people have to bear the burden, financial or otherwise, to remedy something that would not have occurred but for the actions of a corrupt law enforcement officer trying to secure convictions of people who may have been innocent?

Sergeant Dennis was indicted in 2016 and is currently facing criminal charges.

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