City drops drug cases for lack of lab results

Hundreds dismissed since late summer

February 08, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Prosecutors say hundreds of drug cases have been dropped, dismissed or postponed in Baltimore courts in recent months because they could not obtain results of drug tests from the Police Department's crime lab.

The problem began last fall and has become a crisis, leading to the loss of what would otherwise be solid cases, according to prosecutors and the city's top district court judge.

"This has never been a problem before," said Judge Keith E. Matthews, the court's administrative judge. "It's gotten worse. It's reaching crisis proportions. ... I'm hearing about it from every judge that is sitting in criminal court."

The foundation of every drug prosecution is at issue - tests that determine whether suspected drugs are indeed illegal narcotics.

The problem came to light as the number of drug arrests rose last year. Police and prosecutors disagree over what caused it.

Prosecutors say police are not getting suspected drugs analyzed in time for court. While police officials acknowledge that they are "swamped" by a sharp rise in drug cases and that officers should do a better job following up on cases, they say prosecutors are losing the test results.

In many cases, prosecutors and police say, booking officers at the Central Booking and Intake Center - where suspects are first taken - enter incorrect case numbers into state computer systems, making it nearly impossible to find test results.

When police officers seize drugs, they submit the evidence with a report number. Chemists analyze samples and file lab results under that report number. If prosecutors do not have the correct number, which they obtain from court records, police cannot find the analysis.

The exact number of cases, mostly misdemeanors, that have been dropped or postponed as a result of missing chemical analyses is impossible to gauge, though prosecutors say it likely numbers more than 1,000 since late summer. Since August, police have analyzed suspected drugs from 15,187 cases.

Last week, at the request of The Sun, prosecutors examined all of the cases in the five-day period that lacked analyses. Twelve cases, including a felony, were dropped because test results were unavailable. Prosecutors were granted postponements in nine. They say they got lucky in three cases because defendants did not appear in court. In another felony case, the defendant's lawyer did not request a preliminary hearing, giving prosecutors more time. One case was put on the inactive docket.

In one case, plainclothes detectives watched a man sell drugs in West Baltimore and arrested him on felony drug charges. Police technicians could not find the man's file or the test results, so prosecutors were forced to drop the charges.

"These cases aren't being analyzed in a timely fashion," said Laura Mullally, chief of the district court division of the state's attorney's office. "It's at least 1,000 cases, maybe 1,500. ... These are perfectly good cases."

About half the problem seems to stem from faulty case numbers entered by booking officers at the intake center, prosecutors and police said.

"Someone else is entering those numbers, and I can't be held responsible for another agency's work," said Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris.

Officials at central booking acknowledge that wrong numbers are sometimes entered into their computers, but said police often give them incorrect report numbers.

Lamont W. Flanagan, state commissioner of Pretrial Detention and Services, said prosecutors and police need to work out the problems and stop pointing fingers at his agency, which runs central booking.

"I think the Police Department and prosecutors need to get together," Flanagan said. "Central booking is not a convenient excuse for mishaps."

Police and prosecutors said they have met several times to discuss the problem and have taken steps to fix it, including telling officers to write police report numbers in the narrative of their statements of charges, giving prosecutors a second place to look for them.

A new computer system scheduled to go online in coming weeks will allow prosecutors direct access to test results from their desks, cutting down on paperwork, phone calls and faxes back and forth between the crime lab and courthouses.

"We're right there," said Kristen Mahoney, who oversees grants and government relations for the Police Department. "We're close to solving it."

The other causes of the problem are tougher to determine.

Police officials say they do not believe they have neglected to perform analyses, and though the average time for testing has increased from eight hours to one to three days, that is well within the 30 days it usually takes for a drug case to go to trial.

But prosecutors said officers and lab officials have told them in many cases that analyses had not been completed. When the system is working, prosecutors typically get lab results a week or two before trial.

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