Nassau County police will pick up the tab for an independent firm to retest evidence in up to 3,000 felony drug cases through 2008 as a part of the widening probe into errors at the troubled crime lab, county officials said Thursday.
Police will pay the bill using asset-forfeiture funds—money seized from criminals during investigations—instead of taxpayer money, although it is too early to tell how big that bill will be. The announcement came shortly after authorities decided to have all the felony drug case evidence retested, a step up from last month when only a sample of cases were slated for retesting.
“Police errors at the crime lab have put us in the position where we must retest evidence in order to ensure that the court system remains just,” Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice said in a statement. “It is crucial that we retest felony drug evidence and review the testing of blood-alcohol content.”
The county has hired Willow Grove, Penn.-based The National Medical Services (NMS) lab to handle all new drug testing and all re-testing of samples. NMS already is contracted by the county to conduct blood drug testing.
A spokeswoman for County Executive Ed Mangano said the tab could be as high as $500,000, which the county believes will be adequately covered by the asset-forfeiture funds. A police spokesman did not immediately provide a comment on how that might impact the Asset Forfeiture Unit’s criminal intelligence gathering operations.
Rice is also planning to have independent lab experts conduct a technical review of all blood-alcohol content cases through January 2006, about 1,000 in all, since prosecutors revealed last week that paperwork errors occurred in nine blood-alcohol tests in drunken-driving cases on a single day last fall. In those cases the wrong test results were attached to some defendants’ files.
Those revelations prompted a judge to order a retrial Monday for a Hicksville woman convicted of drunken driving, a ruling that is expected to lead to hundreds, if not thousands, of appeals of other convictions.
“Because the judge overturned this case doesn’t mean that the defendant is not guilty,” Marc Gann, a Mineola-based criminal defense attorney and president of the county bar association, said in a statement following the decision.
“What the judge is saying is that if the information that a piece of equipment in the crime lab was not calibrated properly, was disclosed in a timely fashion, the defense would have had the opportunity to cross-examine the police witness, which might have affected the outcome of the case,” he said.
The crime lab issue began to unravel when a national accreditation agency put the crime lab on probation in December, the police staff was replaced with an oversight committee and the narcotics testing section was shut down. Subsequent revelations that police may have known about issues at the lab prior to being put on probation lead authorities to close the entire lab.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month appointed the state inspector general to investigate the lab to determine the origins of the problems.
William Kephart, a Garden City-based criminal defense attorney who is president of the Criminal Court Bar Association of Nassau County, said the felony drug case retesting and the BAC case technical reviews do not go far enough. He said all misdemeanor drug evidence and BAC tests should be retested as well.
“I think it’s a good first step but I think it’s going to have to back much further,” he said, noting that the lab was also put on probation in 2006. “Going back, I think it was more widespread.”
While police conduct an internal investigation on top of the state probe and the county’s administrative review, observers question how much deeper the allegations may go.
“It just seems that the pattern of poor work from the lab was so extensive that I wouldn’t be surprised that it affected ballistics, finger printing or breath testing at the lab,” said Gann, adding that he has seen no evidence to suggest that.