Potential problems with drug testing in the St. Paul Police Department’s crime lab could lead to trial delays, and possibly reduced charges, in cases against Dakota County defendants awaiting prosecution on drug offenses.
"Of course we are concerned," said Mendota Heights Police Chief Mike Aschenbrener when the allegations came forward. He said errors made by the lab could have ripple effects on workloads across the state.
Chief prosecutors in Dakota, Ramsey and Washington counties announced Wednesday that all drugs previously tested by the lab in pending cases will be retested.
The lab has kept samples on file since 2007 with the exception of marijuana, according to Aschenbrener.
In addition, the three county attorneys announced that drug task forces and law enforcement agencies in the three counties will no longer send suspected drugs to the St. Paul lab for testing, but will instead use the services of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA).
“We believe that our responsibilities as prosecutors require us to take appropriate actions to enable justice in past, pending and future cases,” said the joint statement from Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and Washington County Attorney Peter Orput.
“In addition, we seek to ensure the public confidence in the criminal justice system and provide leadership when it is appropriate. We will continue to assist our partners in law enforcement as they develop new procedures to ensure proper analytical testing of evidence.”
The newly announced policies could mean that some more serious drug charges will be reduced if drug samples in pending cases are not sufficient to retest them, the county attorneys said.
Earlier this year, two public defenders filed a motion alleging that the St. Paul Police Department’s crime lab is out of step with best-practice procedures in drug testing. The attorneys testified at a hearing last month that the lab doesn’t have written standard operating procedures, doesn’t document when someone accesses its drug evidence vault and does not conduct ongoing proficiency testing for its staff.
The motion was filed on behalf of Matthew D. Jensen, who was charged in 2009 in Dakota County with felony fifth-degree drug possession and possession of drug paraphernalia, which is a petty misdemeanor.
Seven other cases under the same two public defenders will be heard in August and September, with a judge’s decision expected late this year.
Backstrom said earlier this summer that the three counties were aware of the possible deficiencies in the crime lab as early as last February.
“It is unfortunate that we are in the position of having to take corrective action due to the troubling issues that have come to light in the St. Paul Police Department crime lab as it relates to drug cases,” the county attorneys’ statement said. “… [But] as difficult as it may be, as ministers of justice, we accept the challenge in these cases and embrace the opportunity to improve the system.”
Continuances will be sought in all pending drug cases in Dakota, Ramsey and Washington counties to allow time for retesting the confiscated drugs, according to the statement. St. Paul Police Department officials have agreed to pay any overtime costs associated with the retesting by the BCA.