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Function of Juries & Jury Nullification | 17 Sep 2014

-Jurors Beware: State Crime Labs Incentivized to Help Falsely Convict


Fence_of_Prison-BPOMany jurors are led to believe that evidence and results provided to them through state crime labs are objective data on which they can rely in determining the fate of the defendant. Earlier this year, we discussed the crime lab scandal at the Hinton Lab in Jamaica Plain in Massachusetts, in which a chemist who was socially wooed by prosecutors falsified lab results in favor of conviction for years, calling 40,000 convictions into question. Jurors should be aware that there are even stronger incentives for state crime labs across the country to help prosecutors secure convictions—their financial stability is tied to convictions. In this article Police State USA shares the results of a study by Roger Koppl and Meghan Sacks in the journal Criminal Justice Ethics.

State crime labs are incentivized to help produce false convictions

Like a puppy being rewarded for performing a trick, the government rewards crime labs for “verifying” that unknown substances are illegal narcotics; for finding a driver’s blood alcohol content to be over a certain arbitrary number; for determining that a package of drugs is over a certain arbitrary weight so a more draconian charge can be imposed.

The article takes this quote from the original study:

Funding crime labs through court-assessed fees creates another channel for bias to enter crime lab analyses. In jurisdictions with this practice the crime lab receives a sum of money for each conviction of a given type. Ray Wickenheiser says, ‘‘Collection of court costs is the only stable source of funding for the Acadiana Crime Lab. $10 is received for each guilty plea or verdict from each speeding ticket, and $50 from each DWI (Driving While Impaired) and drug offense.’’

In Broward County, Florida, ‘‘Monies deposited in the Trust Fund are principally court costs assessed upon conviction of driving or boating under the influence ($50) or selling, manufacturing, delivery, or possession of a controlled substance ($100).’’

Several state statutory schemes require defendants to pay crime laboratory fees upon conviction. North Carolina General Statutes require, ‘‘[f]or the services of’’ the state or local crime lab, that judges in criminal cases assess a $600 fee to be charged ‘‘upon conviction’’ and remitted to the law enforcement agency containing the lab whenever that lab ‘‘performed DNA analysis of the crime, tests of bodily fluids of the defendant for the presence of alcohol or controlled substances, or analysis of any controlled substance possessed by the defendant or the defendant’s agent.’’

Illinois crime labs receive fees upon convictions for sex offenses, controlled substance offenses, and those involving driving under the influence. Mississippi crime labs require crime laboratory fees for various conviction types, including arson, aiding suicide, and driving while intoxicated.

The study further lists Alabama, New Mexico, Kentucky, New Jersey, Virginia, Washington, Kansas, Arizona, California, Missouri, Tennessee, and Wisconsin as states that connect crime lab fees to convictions, providing a strong incentive for those state crime labs that wish to stay in business to produce results that lead to the convictions they need to earn the fees that are their lifeblood.

This perverse incentive system is reminiscent of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which provided that the commissioner who decided whether or not an alleged fugitive should be turned over to someone claiming to be his master “shall be entitled to a fee of ten dollars in full for his services in each case, upon the delivery of the said certificate to the claimant, his agent or attorney; or a fee of five dollars in cases where the proof shall not, in the opinion of such commissioner, warrant such certificate and delivery”. By offering commissioners twice the fee for a returned slave as they would receive for freeing him, and allowing them to make this determination on no more “proof” than the sworn statement of the claimant, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was used to send many free blacks into slavery in addition to those people who the law unjustly defined as property.

Jurors should be aware of these incentives encouraging deceit and injustice against peaceful people. Remember, just as the judge isn’t an independent, objective third party in the courtroom, neither are state crime labs objective sources of evidence and analysis. Prosecutors, judges, law enforcement, and state crime lab employees are all beholden to the state for their paychecks and all of their livelihoods depend in various ways on keeping the courts and incarceration facilities teeming with a steady flow of people, whether they have harmed anyone or not. In court, jurors are the ultimate arbiters of the credibility and weight of the evidence and witnesses presented before them. They have no obligation to believe any evidence or analysis presented in court, and have every right to be skeptical about the independence and reliability of state crime labs.