Friday, October 17, 2008

Shoddy forensics in LA police lab

I've previously reported on the closing of the Detroit police lab because of a high error rate. Now , according to a story in the Los Angeles Times, an internal report by the Los Angeles Police Department reveals a pattern of shoddy work in the Department's lab -- including two false accusations in fingerprint cases. At least in part because of lack of funds, neither the Department nor any outside agency has yet conducted a comprehensive review of the lab.

There is little doubt that many other crime labs would, if studied, reveal a similar pattern of problems. See, e.g., Pamela R. Metzger, Cheating the Constitution, 59 Vanderbilt L. Rev. 475 (2006). Detroit probably does not have a worse problem than other cities; rather, it appears, to their credit, that city, county, and state officials have been more aggressive than in other places about addressing it.

Forensic lab reports, especially those suggestive of the commission of a crime, should be deemed testimonial for purposes of the Confrontation Clause, and under Crawford the question of whether they are reliable should not enter into that determination. But to the extent that the Supreme Court, in considering the matter in Melendez-Diaz, may hesitate to characterize such reports as testimonial for fear of imposing gratuitous costs on the criminal justice system, these recent developments highlight the dangers of allowing lab analysts to create evidence for prosecution without being subjected to cross-examination.