A chemist in Florida has jeopardized thousands of legal cases by replacing prescription drugs stored as evidence with over-the-counter pills. Leading the investigation into the Pensacola Regional Crime Laboratory is the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
The discovery could ultimately result in the dropping of drug charges that are currently pending and may even result in the release of convicted prisoners whose cases were handled by this particular chemist. In a news conference held on Saturday, FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey stated that hundreds of cases across Florida could be impacted.
The investigation began when Escambia County investigators found that evidence from several of their investigations had turned up missing in the span of one week. In addition, some prescription drug evidence was found to have been substituted with non-prescription drugs.
All 2,600 cases involving the Florida chemist will be reviewed by agents throughout the FDLE, who must examine the thousands of cases handled by the chemist as well as visit police and sheriff evidence rooms in order to ensure that anything labeled a prescription drug actually contains the medication on the label and was not replaced with over-the-counter pills, jeopardizing the cases. The ramifications and extent of the case are such that Attorney General Pam Bondi sent an e-mail offering to assist the FDLE with their investigation, making it clear that she believes that the FDLE is a “top-notch” agency in which she has complete confidence.
The chemist, who was instructed to take his available vacation and other leave time, is not working while the criminal investigation occurs and will be fired should charges result. He will not be identified until actual charges are brought, which may be filed as quickly as next week. The chemist is not cooperating with the FDLE in their investigation and has hired an attorney to defend him.
No motive has been identified as yet; but according to Bailey, the amount of drugs involved is large, raising the possibility that the chemist could be not only a user, but also involved in drug trafficking. Currently, no evidence exists to suggest that the chemist was bribed to interfere with evidence in order to have cases dismissed.
During the conference, Bailey expressed his shock when he learned of the allegations against this particular employee, who had given no indication at all that he could be involved in anything untoward involving his position in the department.
In order to prevent this type of situation from occurring again, the FDLE is examining its drug testing policy. Currently, employees are tested upon hire and then not tested again unless there is a suspicion that the employee is using drugs. Bailey believes that perhaps increasing the frequency of drug testing could help to prevent cases such as this.
Since his hire in 2006, the chemist in question was involved in cases that came from 80 different law enforcement agencies in 35 different counties. The majority of the thousands of cases in which the Florida chemist was involved included the testing of drug evidence, but an exact number of cases jeopardized by replacing prescription drug evidence with over-the-counter pills is not known. The FDLE is notifying law enforcement agencies and state attorneys across Florida that any pending cases they have may be compromised. Defense attorneys expect a deluge of appeals should the chemist be convicted, as any black mark on the department could be used to argue that the entire work product of the agency during the chemist’s employment was affected, which could overturn verdicts and cause prisoners to be released.
By Jennifer Pfalz