Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Urinalysis flaws lead to 'most of the time' justice

I've wondered before how it is that accuracy so often appears to have become optional in forensic science? That question arises agains with a report from the SA Express News about the Bexar probation department's urinalysis division ('New eyes' oversee Bexar urinalysis lab," 3-16).

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.

"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 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!

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.


Anonymous said...

Probationers in Texas are routinely charged for urinalysis.

Even if confirmation tests are expensive, indigent citizens with inaccurate State results should consider them The cost of Probation fees, restitution, time lost in probation meetings versus the cost of an accurate test may prove to be a savings.

Indigent Defense Lawyers take notice!

Don said...

Its not just large counties like Bexar. It's everywhere. These UA's are a joke. Even if they are confirmed they are only 99% or less accurate, and like the man said "most of the time isn't good enough". Probation officers and courts should never act on the basis of a UA alone.

Anonymous said...

The manufacturer says that the tests are to be a screening device only, a "flag" to determine whether or not further confirming testing is necessary.

Anonymous said...

What a load of BS! UA's have been wrong many times and I am in the medical field. They are expensive and there are dip sticks that could be used to ascertain if there are foreign drugs in urine,i.e.as for diabetics. Someone is just in this for the money and if someone's life and freedom depend on these tests, then they should be accurate. These tests should be paid for by the State or figured in the parole fee paid. The old saying "Money talks and you know what walks." becomes more true in the medical field each day and frankly, I am at the point of getting out of medicine. I always said when a person comes in who needs help and the first question asked is what kind of insurance do you have and how are you going to pay for this, would be the time I got out. Well, we are at that point and I have had it.

God gave all of us a second chance by sending His only Son to suffer and die for our sins, not His but ours so we could even ask for forgiveness, now give others the chance the Lord gave to us. Stop this insane practice of everyone is guilty before a trial starts and stop ruining people's lives!!!

PAPA said...

Please go to my link on website to read information about the "Junk Science Testing" for DRUGS. A must read the book "Ur-ine Trouble" by Kent Holtorf, M.D. who is an expert witness on drug testing and he has never lost a case. The Legislators attempting to expand the bills to drug test all the students in school. No-way can enough prisons be built to put all these people in for failing a "Junk Science TEST for drugs"! Much less keeps all the Inmates in there who have failed "Junk Science TEST"! Be aware that at no time does the legislators vote the budget to see that drug testing is done properly are according to the laws.

PAPA said...

I don't think all the link posted previously

Anonymous said...

Wait, why are they going to jail for positive urine tests? Positive urine tests = substance abuse counseling. hello!! treatment vs. incarceration!!!