Unrefrigerated urine samples cannot be accurately tested after seven days, but the lab routinely tests and reports results for samples beyond that time, and last summer had to throw out 15,000 samples that had long since expired. Still, they cannot test the volume of samples in a timely fashion, as "four technicians and a manager run up to 19,000 drug tests a month on up to 5,000 urine samples from probationers."
"I can tell you that thing's been a pain in the ass for more than a year," [new lab director David] Abbott said.
The lab still doesn't have enough refrigerators to chill all the urine samples and many sit out unrefrigerated, Abbott said.
Abbot told the paper samples don't sit out past the seven day deadline, but probation officers quoted in the article had plenty of examples where they did. Abbot responded that officers were playing "gotcha," which I'd have to agree is correct: He made a sweeping, categorical statement that was untrue, and somebody said, "No it's not. Gotcha!" But is that really a valid criticism, or just whining from someone caught spinning the story?
Indeed, if the probation department's management wasn't at war with its officers - as of Friday, I heard from a Bexar P.O., Director Bill Fitzgerald was in the "Fs" in his retention interviews - its employees probably wouldn't be outing fibs anonymously in the newspaper, so even if he's right about critics' motivations, it still represents a management failure.The situation also shows why increasingly defense attorneys rely when they can (i.e., for non-indigent clients) on independent verification of crime lab results. Reported the Express-News:
Even if the samples are screened in time, they aren't as accurate as a "confirmation," a different, more expensive test the county lab can't do.So let's review. Bexar doesn't use a confirming test that would make certain whether someone uses drugs. On the less accurate tests they do run, by the tens of thousands, samples are left unrefrigerated for the max possible time, in some cases longer, to the point where 15,000 samples had to be thrown out last summer and defense lawyers don't rely on the lab and pay for private testing. Still, the only reason to test is to give prosecutors and judges information on which to base supervision decisions for the offender!
"They don't keep the samples, they don't confirm the samples, they just don't have the money to do that," defense lawyer Ernest Acevedo III said.
That's why Acevedo sends some clients to private labs after they submit urine samples to the county.
Acevedo said whether he has his clients get an independent test depends on a number of factors. He believes the positive screens usually are accurate, but "'most of the time' isn't good enough in our kind of work."
Abbott agreed confirmation tests are the only way to be certain someone has forbidden drugs in his system, but that they are impossibly expensive for the lab, which is funded by a combination of state grants and money from the basic supervision fund.
So they know it's a less accurate test, volume and understaffing preclude careful protocols, but decisions are being made based on the results that affect thousands of probationers' lives. How many probationers are revoked or sanctioned each year because of false positives? Quien sabe? No one knows. No one seems to care.
I find the use of sloppy science in the pursuit of justice abhorrent and irresponsible. I'm always surprised when such situations are tolerated as business as usual. I must admit the whole thing makes me feel naive, like I give too much credit for good intentions to folks inside the system.
It really does seem to be true that accuracy has frequently become optional in forensic science, despite Acevedo's declaration that "'most of the time' isn't good enough in our kind of work." For indigent clients who can't afford independent testing, "most of the time" justice is all they get.