Lab Can’t Keep Up Deluge Of Drug Cases Overwhelms State Forensics Facility, Allowing Suspects To Go Free
Rocks made of methamphetamine, small baggies dusted with white powder, pipes lined with the residue of a drug already inhaled - each is a piece of evidence.
Collected from crime scenes, these items are a part of the nearly 200 drug cases waiting to be tested at the state forensics lab in Coeur d’Alene. Many of these samples have been waiting since July.
What once was a trickle of drug cases has turned to a deluge, swamping the Coeur d’Alene forensics lab with a backlog of evidence.
In turn, court cases are languishing and accused drug peddlers are being released from jail as prosecutors can do little but wait for the evidence they need to prosecute.
“We’ve become a bottleneck,” said Bob Martin, head of the Coeur d’Alene office of the Idaho Bureau of Forensic Services.
From January to July of this year, the Coeur d’Alene lab received 1,514 cases - 38 percent more than the year before.
“It comes down to one thing,” said Chet Park, senior criminalist at the lab. “There’s much more work to do than we have the resources to handle.”
The Coeur d’Alene office of the Bureau of Forensic Services is one of three such labs in the state. It processes evidence gathered by law enforcement agencies in all 10 northern counties.
Two chemists handle the bulk of the work. They examine fibers from murder scenes, body fluids from rapes and blood from drunken driving cases. What they find is then used in court.
But lately, the chemists spend most of their time testing drugs. And more often that not, it’s methamphetamine, Martin said.
In July last year, the Coeur d’Alene lab handled 43 drug cases. This July that number jumped to 180.
Methamphetamine, with its cheap cost and extended high, has made its way into a skyrocketing number of veins and noses.
“It’s just phenomenal,” said Traci Post, Kootenai County deputy prosecutor. “It used to be you would see a methamphetamine case once in a while. Now it’s all the time.”
So far this year, the Idaho Bureau of Narcotics has handled 137 meth cases - the same number from the previous three years combined.
A single drug case may have numerous items for the lab to test, everything from syringes to ballpoint pen tubes used to snort the drug. And each suspected drug undergoes at least two tests, Park said.
The work done at the lab is cutting-edge stuff.
A high-powered microscope allows the chemists to look at a single crystal of narcotics.
A large gray machine, a “gas chromatograph mass spectrometer,” hums with energy. It tests minute samples of drugs and displays the information on a computer screen in the form of a spiking blue line. The chemists, with the help of the computer, read that line to determine what kind of drug they have.
Park estimates he will put in 40 hours of overtime this month.
“In drug cases, I am doing the equivalent of one and a half full-time employees,” Park said.
The load has been so great in the past year the lab regularly fails to have its work done by the time the criminal case is ready for a preliminary hearing.
A person in jail has a right to a preliminary hearing within 14 days. If they’re not in jail, the hearing must be within 21 days.
“We don’t always make it,” Martin admits.
“At times, the lab is so overrun they just can’t get us the lab slip in time,” Post said.
If the prosecutor can’t go forward with the case at the preliminary hearing the charge must either be dismissed or the case continued to a later date.
Usually the prosecutor asks the judge for a continuance. However, in order for the accused criminal and defense attorney to agree to such a delay, the prosecutor often has to agree to lower the bail or allow the accused criminal to be released from jail.
“That’s really frustrating when you don’t think it’s in society’s best interest for them to be out,” Post said.
If a case gets dismissed because the lab results aren’t ready, the prosecutor does have the option to refile the charges.
Tanya Gomez, legal assistant at the prosecutor’s office, can quickly list half a dozen cases that have been continued because lab results weren’t ready. Among them:
State vs. William Boyd, charged with possession of methamphetamine: Preliminary hearing postponed in exchange for being released from jail.
State vs. Jessie Desjarlais, charged with two counts of drug trafficking and delivery of a controlled substance: Preliminary hearing postponed twice, bail reduced by more than half.
State vs. Jeffrey Hill, charged with possession of meth, possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia: Preliminary hearing postponed.
The Coeur d’Alene lab isn’t the only one to feel the crush.
“We’re all very busy,” said Rick Groff, the forensic bureau’s deputy chief in Boise. “The one thing about this meth epidemic, it has hit everywhere.”
In 1990, Idaho’s three forensic labs handled a total of 3,466 cases - 1,887 of those were drug cases.
By the end of this year these labs are expected to examine 7,540 cases - 5,573 of which will be drug cases.
“It’s just too much,” Martin said.
Wayne Longo, special agent for the state Bureau of Narcotics, said his agents are trying to pare down the evidence they send to the lab. Instead of sending 20 items to be tested, they may pick the top 10 items they need done soonest.
Judges also have been allowing some specially trained officers to submit their own field tests on the drugs at the preliminary hearing level, Post said.
At the lab, the gas chromatograph now runs throughout the night, gathering data on drug samples.
Hope is on the horizon.
A position vacated when a firearms examiner left the Meridian office is expected to be replaced in the Coeur d’Alene office. Martin hopes to begin interviewing applicants in a month. It will be the first time in 10 years an additional chemist has been added to the staff.
Despite the difficulties, prosecutors and law enforcement officials have only praise for the lab employees and their efforts to keep up with the work load.
Still, “It is frustrating when we can’t provide the service we are capable of providing in a timely manner,” Park said. “It’s very frustrating to us to say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t.”’
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo; Graphic: Idaho’s forensic cases