Colorado’s State Toxicology Lab Needs National Accreditation

DUI defense attorneys are constantly attacking Colorado’s forensics laboratories in blood cases, and for good reason. The Colorado Department of Health’s toxicology laboratory is under fire for a recent report released to defense attorneys describing the shortcomings of the blood-testing laboratory.

Colorado’s toxicology laboratory problems are not an isolated incident. In Colorado, as well as across the country, there is an epidemic of crime labs that are terribly understaffed, undertrained, and under-supervised. The results are sloppy lab work, inaccurate blood alcohol content results, and even criminal activity on behalf of the supervisors and technicians that are supposed to provide neutral and unbiased scientific results.

The case that has garnered the most media in the past few years is that of Annie Dookhan. The State Department of Public Health in Massachusetts investigated Dookhan is accused of falsifying results on drug analysis tests and then removing the samples from the evidence room to cover her tracks. Dookhan resigned last year and is currently facing felony charges. The Dookhan case is an example of what can happen in a toxicology lab that does not have proper supervision, protocols, and quality control.

In recent news, a Texas state forensics lab employee is also accused of mishandling approximately 4,000 drug tests. California recently had an incident in San Francisco where there was switched samples of DNA evidence in a murder case, and a cover up following to hide the crime.

Many of the problems in state forensic labs that analyze blood for DUI cases and other criminal charges could be cured, in part, with national accreditation. When laboratories are allowed to certify themselves, the regulations are lax and change when circumstances and convenience dictate. The Colorado Department of Health is a perfect example. The CDPHE failed in the past to get accreditation from the American Board of Forensic Toxicologists.

According to the ABFT’s forensic toxicology laboratory accreditation manual, as well as its website, the objective of accreditation “is to establish, enhance, and maintain standards of qualification for those laboratories…” and to “accredit as qualified laboratories those applicants who comply with the requirements of the Board.” The ABFT further states that its accreditation is based upon an on-site inspection, a peer review process, proficiency testing, and compliance with its standards.

While inconsistent and underperforming crime labs are fair game for DUI defense attorneys in court, the system works best when science is reliable and consistent. If a poll were taken of the best DUI attorneys in Denver, the majority of us would support national accreditation for the state’s forensic laboratories. Our jobs would become more difficult, and evidence would be trustworthier, but the ultimate purpose of the criminal justice system is fairness, and everyone should be treated fair, regardless of who is testing their blood.

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