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County attorney addresses drug lab issues

Dakota County is one of three metro counties to take steps to issues with drug testing done by the St. Paul Police Department Crime lab.

The lab's practices and training have been scrutinized in recent months, and 350 to 400 cases could be affected.

"We believe that our responsibilities as prosecutors require us to take appropriate action to enable justice in past, pending and future cases," said Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom. He was also speaking on behalf of 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," Backstrom said. "We will continue to assist our partners in law enforcement as they develop new procedures to ensure proper analytical testing of evidence."

A number of steps have been taken to accomplish their common objective, said Backstrom.

Drug task forces (including the Dakota County Drug Task Force supported by all municipalities in the county) will discontinue sending any suspected controlled substances to the St. Paul Crime Lab. The law enforcement agencies within the three-county area are being asked to preserve all suspected controlled substances for re- testing purposes, if necessary. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is retesting all samples in pending cases. Continuances have been asked in these cases.

"Priority for re-testing will be given to individuals currently in custody," said Backstrom. "Additional re-testing will be prioritized based upon the level of the offenses and the offense date."

He added that if re-testing is not possible due to lack of a sufficient sample, a reduced charge will be pursued.

Prosecutors also will review post-conviction motions on a case-by-case basis.

"It is important to keep in mind that the deficits identified to date in the St. Paul Police Department Crime Lab relate primarily to the lack of adequate operating policies and procedures of this laboratory's drug policies and procedures and this laboratory's drug testing process," said Backstrom. "It has not been shown that these deficits actually resulted in the widespread misidentification of substances believed to be illegal drugs."

Backstrom also defended the actions of his office and staff regarding the claim of some public defenders that prosecutors had prior knowledge of the extent of possible problems. The action began in February and March, he said, after his office received many requests related to the drug testing, and the reliability of them, performed by the St. Paul Police Crime Lab.

Shortly after learning of the public defender's concerns Backstrom's office reached an agreement with the public defender, which called for the public defender to identify the "multiple test cases" in which that office's concerns could be addressed.

Backstrom said his staff received many requests for information regarding the procedures and policies of the crime lab. The public defender also requested the opportunity to interview crime lab personnel. His staff supplied information and documents.

"Despite these efforts, my office was not provided with any specifics regarding concerns the public defender had with testing procedures as required by the Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedures," said Backstrom.

At a June 25 hearing, Backstrom's office raised its concerns. Messerich said she expected the public defender's office to comply with the Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedures by July 9.

On that day, Backstrom said his office received more than 2,700 pages of documents from the public defender's office. Included were the names of three experts, who submitted their opinions later that week.

Backstrom asked for a continuance of the July 16 hearing. It was denied. Two additional documents were forwarded to Backstrom's office, one right before the hearing, the second the day after it began, he said.

"After hearing the testimony of defense experts in this hearing, and after reviewing some of the 2,700 pages of documents the defense disclosed just days before the hearing, some of which were disclosed after the court-imposed deadline, the Dakota County Attorney's recognized the seriousness of the problems with the St. Paul Department Crime Laboratory and took immediate steps to address them," said Backstrom.