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Should crime laboratories be paid per conviction?

Posted by Craig Penrod | Jan 28, 2014 | 0 Comments

It's bad enough that you may be facing charges for driving under the influence (DUI) or equally serious criminal charges, but should your future and your freedom be based upon whether or not the revenues funding the budget of crime lab analyzing the evidence collected in your case will be paid only if you are convicted of the charges you are facing.

In Tempe, Phoenix or other communities in Maricopa County, it is important that you consult experienced Arizona DUI lawyers like those associated with the Law Offices of Craig W. Penrod, P.C.

Late last summer, the journal Criminal Justice Ethics, published a study authored by Roger Koppl and Meghan Sacks, suggested that the decisions of forensic scientists in some crime labs are being influenced by payments the labs are receiving following the convictions of defendants. Not quite the process represented by the popular TV show "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," currently in its 14th season.

In their study, Koppl and Sacks talk about one lab where the collection of court costs following convictions is the only stable source of funding. The authors reported that crime labs in the state of Arizona receive fees upon convictions under ARS § 41-2421, which specifies enhanced fee collections, the allocation of those fees and which criminal justice entities receive those fees. The statute specifies pursuant to rules adopted by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission that monies collected shall be allocated to several entities, including 14.29 percent for distribution to state, county and municipal law enforcement full service forensic crime laboratories.

In the state of Washington persons who are found guilty due to the analysis of forensic evidence in their case are required pay a $100 fee. In the state of Kansas the fee is $400. In the state of North Carolina there is a fee of $600 for those found guilty due to the analysis of DNA evidence provide at trial. Similar rules apply in the states of Alabama, New Mexico, Kentucky, New Jersey, Virginia, Illinois and Michigan.

To say that this situation creates a perverse incentive might be an understatement. In fact, I would suggest that forensic evidence is very vulnerable to bias due to the issues of funding for the labs. It is also easy to suggest that the decisions of forensic scientists regarding fingerprint and DNA evidence can be influenced by these funding issues.

Koppl and Sacks also point to a report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which suggested that "the opinions of bloodstain pattern analysts are more subjective than scientific." Other areas of forensic science that rely on subjective judgment include fingerprint analysis, handwriting comparisons, traditional hair microscopy, ballistics and impression evidence, which includes of shoe and tire tracks.

The paper by Koppl and Sacks was published when thousands of criminal cases across the country were under review due to alleged malpractice by forensic scientists at crime labs. I have trouble identifying a greater potential conflict of interest than compensating forensic scientists when there is a conviction in which they played a significant role.

Prior to forensic evidence, confession and eyewitness identification evidence, when available, typically exerted the most influence in criminal cases. The impact of this type of evidence begins with the police and ultimately prosecutors, to whom this type of evidence represents a solid chance of a conviction.

It is relatively easy to observe whether a forensic scientist's work supports the police or prosecution theory in a case. It is relatively difficult to observe whether a forensic scientist's work includes errors. Thus, one-sided incentives to help secure convictions would create a multitask problem in forensic science. Unfortunately, forensic scientists do often have an incentive to produce results that support the police or prosecution theory:

  • Forensic science is dependent upon the use of subjective judgment. Even fingerprint examination and DNA typing often involve the use of subjective judgment.
  • There are incentives for law enforcement officer to the clear cases and secure convictions. Those incentives tend to produce similar incentives in crime labs to find evidence inculpating criminal suspects.

Forensic evidence is generally examined by one crime lab only, thus a monopoly is created regarding the examination and interpretation of such evidence.

It is important that your DUI legal situation should be handled by expert professionals with the experience possessed by the attorneys at the Law Offices of Craig W. Penrod, P.C. Our office offers free consultations for all DUI and criminal matters. Our Arizona DUI attorneys and Arizona criminal lawyers can provide you with the experience and knowledge needed for qualified representation. An experienced Arizona DUI lawyer is vital in DUI cases and our DUI attorneys set that standard. If you're in need of a criminal defense, our Arizona criminal attorneys are ready to assist you.

About the Author

Craig Penrod

Craig W. Penrod was born and raised in Arizona and has practiced criminal defense for over 30 years. Mr. Penrod is a member of the State Bar of Arizona, Maricopa County Bar Association, State of Nevada Bar Association, American Bar Association, American Trial Lawyers Association, Arizona Trial Lawyers Association, Nevada Trial Lawyers Association, Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

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