The Issues With Scottsdale Crime Lab DUI Tests

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scottsdaleScottsdale Crime Lab Inaccuracies

Scottsdale has its own forensic testing laboratory, the Scottsdale Crime Laboratory (SCL), and one of its duties is to conduct analyses of blood samples obtained from persons charged with Driving Under the Influence.

In 2009, SCL purchased a gas chromatograph, a blood testing machine, but soon after the machine was “approved” to test subjects’ blood samples, it started having issues. The machine would fail to acquire data in the middle of testing a sample and shut itself off. It would assign information from one blood sample to another sample or label all of the samples with the same identification number.

Typically, when a problem like this occurred, the lab’s method of correcting the error was simply to retest the particular batch where the error occurred. If that test was completed without experiencing additional problems, the retested BAC results were reported. Despite their own regulations and internationally accepted standards per ISO 17025, SCL never removed the machine from service to figure out what was causing all of these errors.

After nearly a year of problems, a Phoenix attorney noted something unusual in the documents he was provided in his client’s case. From that point on, he, two other attorneys, and Mark began a multi-year battle with the State and SCL to obtain records, original test results, e-mails, and other documentation. Mark and the other three attorneys decided to collectively contest the BAC results reported in Scottsdale DUI cases at Maricopa County Superior Court; Mark was the first attorney to challenge the results in front of a jury in Scottsdale City Court.

Over the course of three years, there were multiple hearings in the courts, thousands of pages of lab documents to comb through, interviews of crime lab personnel, education about accepted international standards within the scientific community, and numerous meetings with top experts in forensic sciences. From December 2012—May 2013, these four attorneys spent 18 days in a hearing in Maricopa County Superior Court dedicated to challenging the reliability of blood testing in the Scottsdale Crime Lab.

Ruling in Favor of Challenges to Reliability of Lab Results

In August 2013, the Superior Court judge issued his ruling in favor of Mark and the other attorneys, ordering that multiple cases be dismissed and finding that the manner in which SCL conducted its blood testing was unreliable. The judge noted in particular that SCL made the decision to keep the error-riddled machine in service and that it never attempted to find out what was causing the problems.

Further, analysts and managers within SCL exchanged e-mails admitting that they were not confident in the decisions of their own employees in relation to the machine, yet they never testified to this during the hearing. Finally, the court was also concerned by SCL management’s lack of oversight and knowledge about the problems occurring in the lab. The judge ruled that “given the errors or problems, and the refusal to determine the why or the basis for them, significant questions arise as to the reliability and confidence in this gas chromatography instrument. Although there are policies and procedure that purport to act as safeguards, it is apparent that they haven’t been sufficient.”

State Challenges the Ruling

The State refused to accept the judge’s ruling or admit the shortcomings of Scottsdale’s machines, procedures, and analysts and appealed the decision. On review, the Court of Appeals disagreed with the Superior Court and decided that unless an error occurred in a defendant’s test run, the lab’s problems were irrelevant and should not be presented to a jury.

Arizona Supreme Court Overturns

This issue was ultimately accepted by the Arizona Supreme Court, before whom Mark and the three other attorneys presented argument in February 2015. Although the Supreme Court did not throw out the blood results, it did overturn the Court of Appeals decision and decided that lab problems are relevant and should be presented to juries if the attorneys want. These decisions were publicized by numerous news outlets (click here for media coverage), and this exposure increased public scrutiny on the Scottsdale Crime Lab, resulting in changes to their day-to-day operations. Their personnel structure, job functions, and lab oversight have been amended in an effort to create a more effective system of checks and balances and public transparency.