Backlog in North Carolina Crime Labs Leading to Evidence Processing Issues

Backlog in North Carolina Crime Labs Leading to Evidence Processing Issues

Police departments are now bypassing state crime labs for private facilities.

On television, forensic evidence is a surefire way to solve crimes. High-tech facilities and state of the art equipment point the way to the culprit every time.

In reality, state crime labs in North Carolina are overburdened and struggle to meet demand. Mistakes occur, like they do in every industry and profession. North Carolina also prioritizes cases involving murder, rape and other serious felonies, meaning that forensic evidence from burglaries and theft can take years to process. North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper summarized the problem to WRAL: “You have 20,000 law enforcement officers across North Carolina sending tens of thousands of cases to the lab . . . and you have about 124 scientist positions who are trying to handle all of this.”

This longstanding issue has led to some police departments bypassing state crime labs in favor of private companies. Police are using funds from asset seizures in order to pay for processing evidence. While this may speed up the testing process, using private facilities also means less regulation of crime labs.

Currently there are three state-run crime labs in North Carolina, with the crime lab in Raleigh the only full-service lab.

The overburdened system can make mistakes more likely to occur. For example, in 2010 the FBI conducted an investigation on crime labs in North Carolina. It found that in over a 16-year period, 230 cases involved withholding of exculpatory evidence or distorted evidence. Essentially, in hundreds of cases a jury either did not receive all of the evidence or heard potentially damning evidence that was inaccurate .

Obtaining and processing evidence requires obeying constitutional principles

In a criminal case, police must not only accurately collect and process forensic evidence. They must also obtain it in a legal manner that respects a defendant’s constitutional rights. Under the Fourth Amendment, police must have probable cause to conduct a search or seizure of assets. If police fail to follow constitutional principles, the evidence they obtain is inadmissible in court. In addition, defendants have a right under the Sixth Amendment to confront their accuser. In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Melendez-Diaz that sworn statements from lab personal were not admissible as evidence. So if lab evidence is used, lab personnel must appear in court to testify.

In addition, the evidence collected must be stored properly and processed. If mistakes are made, the evidence can be contested as unreliable or it may be inadmissible.

The experienced criminal defense attorneys at Jetton & Meredith, PLLC., can help defendants protect their constitutional rights are upheld throughout criminal proceedings and otherwise vigorously defend those accused of a crime.

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