News surfaced nine months ago that a technician at the San Francisco Police Department Crime Laboratory was skimming evidence from the narcotics unit for her own personal use. The technician reportedly stole cocaine evidence. The San Francisco Police Department closed the narcotics unit in May.

A U.S. Senator announced last month that he intends to introduce federal legislation to reform the field of forensic science nationwide. On the heels of the scandal in San Francisco, many experts are questioning the integrity of evidence used in California drug possession cases.

The rogue technician crime lab scandal only extended as far as the San Francisco narcotics unit within the lab. Sources have reported that other discrepancies have occurred in the lab. A mix-up of test tubes containing DNA evidence has been reported. Officials reportedly concealed the DNA mix-up for two years.

In September, the American Society of Crime Lab Directors, an organization that accredits crime labs, confirmed that the DNA sample switch had occurred. The report from the accreditation board also cited irregularities found during an inspection indicating that doors within the DNA unit were frequently propped open. Sensitive DNA evidence can be contaminated when laboratory doors are propped open.

The National Academy of Sciences issued a report on the subject of crime lab integrity as far back as February 2009. The report indicated that crime labs lack resources and fail to have the capacity to consistently demonstrate connections between evidence and a specific individual or source, with the exception of nuclear DNA analysis.

The proposed federal legislation, expected to be introduced in the U.S. Senate early this year intends to create federal oversight of crime lab accreditation. California created a crime lab task force in 2007. After the allegations arose concerning missing drugs in the San Francisco crime lab last year, a majority of the member of the California task force voted to "suspend future task force meetings."

Evidence analyzed in crime labs is often used in criminal cases throughout California. It remains unclear if federal legislation will have a major impact at the state level. Barry Fisher, vice chair of the California crime lab task force and former director of the crime laboratory in Los Angeles County says "the difficulty with federal legislation is that it doesn't have a great deal of control over what goes on in the states."

It is important to remember that an experienced California drug possession attorney can review the facts of an individual case and seek to challenge the state's evidence against a defendant. Challenges to the integrity of the state's evidence are one tool; other constitutional challenges may be available in an individual case.

Source: California Watch, "Federal legislation proposed to reform crime labs," Kendall Taggart 28 Dec 2010