Defense attorneys seek fed inquiry of MSP crime labs over testing in marijuana cases
Southfield — Three defense attorneys are asking the federal government to investigate the Michigan State Police crime laboratories, alleging misconduct in their testing for pending drug cases.
Southfield defense attorneys Neil Rockind and Michael Komorn, along with Michael Nichols of East Lansing, want the National Institute of Justice and the institute’s Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences to look into their claims that the State Police lab has — on advice of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan — compromised results in marijuana cases.
According to Rockind, defense attorneys have obtained emails sent between lab officials and the association that allegedly show the labs were influenced by PAAM in its reporting of the testing of suspected marijuana in criminal cases and the origin of THC, the active component that produces the “high” obtained by the user.
“This involves how test results can show whether substances are synthetic, such as in designer drugs or from plant material,” Rockind said. “If synthetic, it can result in felony offenses punishable by up to seven years in prison rather than the more common misdemeanor offense or a crime in which medical marijuana card holders can advance a medical defense.”
State Police and the prosecutors association deny the attorneys’ allegations.
MSP crime labs received more than $236,000 this year in federal funding through the Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grant Program. The grants are monitored by two federal agencies, Rockind said.
According to Rockind’s complaint, dated Tuesday, the emails reveal a “co-dependence between the Crime Lab and the prosecuting attorneys association that is the antithesis of an independent, objective and science focused forensic crime laboratory.”
“The problem is the interference by the prosecuting attorneys association with the reporting of scientific results,” Rockind wrote the agencies. “It reflects a culture that the Crime Lab and its analysts are not scientists reporting forensic analyses dispassionately in court through testimony. Instead, it reflects a systematic top-down management of the reporting by (PAAM) through the MSP laboratory supervisors.”
Rockind also wrote that the MSP crime labs have violated guidelines of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board, which has accredited the lab.
Accredited labs nationally follow guidelines that include being impartial and objective, approaching all testing with an open mind and without bias, the complaint states.
Quoting the accrediting agency’s guidelines, Rockind wrote, labs must “conduct complete and unbiased examinations. Conclusions are based on the evidence and referenced material relevant to the evidence, not extraneous information, political pressure, or other outside influences.”
“The involvement and participation of the prosecuting attorney in the operation and conduct of the Crime Lab violates these guidelines,” Rockind wrote.
Rockind said he has not filed a lawsuit in the matter but only seeks to have supervisory officials review the situation, identify problems, if any, and determine corrective action.
Gerry LaPorte, a director of the two federal agencies both based in Washington, D.C., could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Shanon Banner, a spokeswoman for the Michigan State Police, said, “The allegations of this group of defense attorneys are without merit.”
Banner said in 2013, the State Police Forensic Science Division changed its policy regarding how marijuana and THC are reported “in an effort to standardize reporting practices among our laboratories and to ensure laboratory reports only include findings that can be proved scientifically.”
Banner said that with an increase of synthetic drugs being sent to labs, “it became necessary to ensure reporting standards were in place across all labs.”
Lab workers were involved in discussions and proposed changes, she said, which included using the phrase “origin unknown” for samples where the source of the THC could not be scientifically proven to originate from plant-based material.
“It does not mean the sample is synthetic THC,” Banner stressed. “It only means the lab did not determine the origin, and the source of the THC should not be assumed from the lab results.”
“The allegation that politics or influence from any outside entity played a role in this policy change is wholly untrue,” Banner said. “Further, the MSP rejects the allegation that an internal policy change to ensure standardization regarding how test results are reported rises to the level of negligence or misconduct.”
PAAM president Mike Wendling issued a response Wednesday that said, in part, “defense attorneys have alleged that the PAAM directed the Michigan State Police Forensic Science Division to change their reporting procedures relating to THC in an effort to increase potential charges. These allegations are false.”
Wendling said the allegations are based on two emails in which Ken Stecker, a staff attorney, opined that “THC is a Schedule I drug, regardless of where it comes from.
“At no time, in either email, did Mr. Stecker direct MSP Forensic Science personnel on how to conduct tests or how to report their findings.
“When the MSP Forensic Science Division tests a substance that shows the presence of THC, the measurement of that THC is reported,” Wendling wrote. “If plant material is not detected to be present, they cannot determine if the THC is a synthetically created resin or created out of plant material.”
Wendling stressed that the crime labs set their own protocols for reporting scientific findings and described Stecker as a “highly regarded and highly requested statewide and national presenter on the issues of traffic safety and drug use.”