Dropped drug cases increase

Prosecutors say crime lab failed to give test results

`Lots of ideas, no solutions'

Lack of chemists, more arrests noted as issues

April 07, 2003|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Baltimore prosecutors say they have been dropping a growing number of drug cases because the city police crime laboratory has failed to provide them with basic test results.

Clearly frustrated by what they call slow progress in fixing problems that surfaced more than a year ago, prosecutors said city police are not seriously addressing the issue.

"We are concerned about this issue and how it affects public safety," Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office, said last week. "How many meetings do we need to have? The bottom line is this needed to be done six months ago. ... It's about the allocation of resources. We're having lots of meetings, lots of ideas and no solutions."

In January, the last month statistics were available, prosecutors dropped 101 cases in District Court because they could not obtain the test results needed to prove suspected drugs are illegal narcotics -- a prerequisite for investigations to move forward in court.

That is up from 23 cases in December and 20 cases in November, according to data supplied by the state's attorney's office. (The figures for those three months also include cases placed on the stet, or inactive, docket, which allows charges to be dismissed if suspects commit no further crimes in set periods of time.)

Drug tests are also not being completed by trial date in 28 percent of cases, causing further courtroom delays, according to a recent study conducted by police, prosecutors and other criminal justice officials.

Baltimore police officials say that the dropped cases represent a small portion of all drugs tested by the crime lab and that the agency needs more chemists to help battle a backlog of cases.

Police also blame prosecutors for giving them incorrect information when seeking the results of the tests.

"They send over their lists, and they have bad case numbers," said Edgar Koch, director of the department's crime laboratory. "We can't find the stuff."

Koch said that the laboratory is experiencing staffing shortages -- a problem that has troubled the unit in the past.

The lab is down two chemists from its allotted 22 positions. It was down six in the last few months of last year, until Koch was able to hire four new chemists -- three hired under a grant program -- at the end of December. Those chemists are just getting up to speed on how to test suspected drugs.

Koch said it is unlikely that he will be able to fill the two positions that are open because state officials are pulling back on grant funding.

Persistent shortages of chemists and an increase in drug arrests -- submissions to the lab increased by 7 percent last year to about 34,000 cases -- have strained the laboratory and contributed to a 2,500-case backlog early this year, Koch said.

In recent weeks, Koch said, the lab has whittled its backlog down to 1,000 cases.

To alleviate strain on the laboratory, police said last week that they would institute a series of reforms soon. The state's attorney's office will send the laboratory a single consolidated request for tests twice a day, instead of several lists from various prosecutors.

The new request will also inform police about which cases prosecutors have dropped or intend to drop. Not testing samples from cases that have been dropped should help the chemists cut their workload, police said.

Prosecutors routinely decline to press charges in about 25 percent of all cases within hours of an arrest.

The police have also promised to work to correct errors in reports more quickly and promised to better train prosecutors on how to search computers to find test results.

Problems with laboratory tests came to light in February last year, when prosecutors said they were forced to drop hundreds of drug cases because of missing analysis results.

At the time, police blamed city jail employees who incorrectly entered report numbers into charging documents -- making it impossible to find test results when prosecutors needed them.

Police added two chemists to help combat increasing caseloads and former Commissioner Edward T. Norris issued a memo reminding officers to take copies of the test results to court. A new computer system that allows prosecutors to receive laboratory reports online also helped streamline the process.

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