A chemist from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement chemist is under investigation for evidence tampering. The Pensacola-based chemist, whose name has not been released as he has not been charged with anything, performed tests on criminal evidence in the form of prescription pills that had been seized by police in nearly 2,600 cases. The cases span from the time he was first hired in 2006 to the present day. The chemist has been ordered to use his accrued compensatory leave and vacation time pending the outcome of the investigation. It is expected that he will be fired and face criminal charges once all the facts are known.
The investigation began after the Escambia County Sheriff’s office found that evidence was missing in several drug cases and later discovered that non-prescription pills had been substituted for prescription pills in evidence packages. The FDLE and State Attorney William Eddins’ Office in Pensacola stepped in to aid the investigation. The FDLE said that the chemist is suspected of removing the prescription pills from the evidence storage room and replacing them with over-the-counter medication.
On Saturday, the FDLE announced that it was going to be performing a massive evidence review of thousands of drug cases from 80 Florida law enforcement agencies across 35 counties and covered by 12 judicial circuits that were handled by a single crime-lab chemist. Several dozen evidence submissions have been identified so far in which over-the-counter medications had been swapped with prescription drugs.
If the investigation of the crime-lab chemist determines that evidence has been tampered with and stolen, drug charges will have to be dropped and inmates may be let go, said the head of the FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey. The cases that have already been tried could be taken up on a habeas petition alleging “new evidence that was previously undiscoverable,” i.e. that the offending substance is actually an over-the-counter medication. And at that point, the chemist would then have no credibility regarding the initial tests upon a retrial. Law enforcement agencies and state attorneys with pending cases are being contacted by investigators as well.
Commissioner Bailey stated that investigators will review every single case the chemist worked on as well. This entails actually physically looking in the evidence rooms of police and sheriff’s departments around the state, especially at the prescription medication evidence, in order to determine if the contents contain prescription medication or an over-the-counter calcium tablet.
Commissioner Bailey said the situation is disappointing and shocking, that the chemist was not someone he would have suspected of any wrongdoing, and that he would have been “way down on my list of potential bad apples.” There has been no indication so far, said Bailey, that chemist was bribed to tamper with evidence in order to get cases dismissed. The quantities are large, said the FDLE at a news conference, and at this point is unknown if the theft was motivated by trafficking or personal use. Employees are only drug tested when they are hired, said Bailey. In order to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future, the department is currently reviewing its drug testing program. The chemist is not cooperating with investigators and has hired an attorney.
By Donna Westlund