Law enforcement in Florida announced on Saturday that thousands of drug convictions were being put in jeopardy by the discovery of possible evidence tampering by a chemist who worked analysis for several law-enforcement agencies. The chemist in question worked at a Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) lab in Pensacola which served police departments and agencies from across the state. In all, cases from as many as 35 different counties could be called into question once a comprehensive review is undertaken.
The issue was first discovered because people investigating a case in Escambia County found that some of the evidence for one of their case had gone missing. Further investigation revealed that some of the packages pertaining to the case that were present, actually held the wrong items. Over-the-counter pills had been substituted in some cases for the prescription ones which were being held as evidence. There are thousands of cases which may have been placed in jeopardy by this one man, working for a single Florida lab. The man worked on the testing of drug evidence for crimes investigated by more than 80 separate agencies statewide. So far, there are almost 2600 separate cases which may potentially be re-opened. The name of the chemist in question has not been released, but statements made this weekend by Florida officials indicates that the investigation is centered around the cases worked by one individual working out of the Pensacola regional office of the FDLE. He has been placed on a paid leave of absence during the investigation, as no formal charges have yet been brought.
This case comes on the heels of an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filing at the beginning of January regarding a similar case in a Massachusetts lab. Lab worker, Annie Dookhan, pled guilty of falsifying test results while employed at a state crime lab. The attempts to navigate the pitfalls related to this case ended up with the ACLU calling on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to vacate decisions in cases involving more than 40,000 cases because of the interference of one woman who had worked on all of the cases in question. Florida officials looking at the mess that continues to evolve around that case are almost certainly hoping to handle the situation differently in order to avoid duplicating the problems that the Massachusetts judicial system is currently experiencing.
More aspects of the case are expected to develop as investigators in each of the 80 agencies with convictions related to the chemist in question are able to determine exactly what, and how much, has gone missing or been swapped out from the evidence in their jurisdictions. As patterns emerge, it may become easier to identify a motive for the man’s actions.
At the moment, with no formal charges filed, the conversation surrounding the issue has been focused on discovering the extent of the damage. The question of whether this was a case of personal use being disguised or a larger operation involving trafficking has yet to even be addressed. With thousands of cases put in jeopardy by this lab worker, Florida law-enforcement officials are being as methodical as possible at every juncture. Though indications are that the scope of this problem is smaller than the Massachusetts case, the same pitfalls could potentially be waiting with any wrong moves made in the case.
By Shannon Malone