No new drug cases appeared this morning in San Francisco Superior Court, two days after revelations of alleged mishandling of drug evidence in the police department’s crime lab.
Deborah Madden, 60, a recently retired lab supervisor who was a civilian employee, is the subject of an investigation by the Police Department into allegations she took small amounts of cocaine from evidence containers.
Police Chief George Gascon said Tuesday he was temporarily suspending narcotics testing at the lab pending the results of an internal investigation and an outside audit of the lab by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors.
In a November report, the ASCLD critiqued some of the lab’s policies and procedures, including chain-of-custody records on the transfer of evidence.
The new investigation has thrown the status of both new and old drug cases into question. Defense attorneys can now potentially call the validity of any drug evidence analyzed by the lab into question.
“Because the chain of custody has been jeopardized, the drug evidence is inadmissible,” Deputy Public Defender Kleigh Hathaway said today.
Courtroom felony arraignment calendars were noticeably smaller this morning.
According to Deputy Public Defender Rebecca Young, only five arraignments had taken place by mid-morning, none of them drug cases. She said typically more than half of all arraignments are drug cases.
District attorney’s office spokesman Brian Buckelew confirmed that his office has not filed any new narcotics cases. The office dropped 25 to 30 drug cases on Wednesday, and a similar number was expected today, he said.
Of those cases, some were ongoing cases that were dismissed and others were recent drug arrests that were discharged, pending the results of lab testing in neighboring counties that have offered to assist San Francisco police.
The results of those new cases will not be returned within the 48 hours necessary for the district attorney’s office to file charges after an arrest, but charges could be filed in several weeks.
According to Young and Hathaway, most of the drug cases their office handles are the results of people being arrested in undercover buy-bust stings that police conduct in the Tenderloin.
Police spokesman Sgt. Wilfred Williams said today that the operations are continuing.
“I think it’s hurting morale,” Buckelew said of the dropped cases. “You have a lot of officers who put in a lot of dangerous work in these buy-bust operations.”
“There’s just a lot of work that goes into this and it’s a shame that one former lab employee has the ability to cause so much damage,” he said.
Contrary to allegations by Public Defender Jeff Adachi on Wednesday that police and prosecutors knew as early as December about the investigation into Madden and failed to notify his office, Buckelew asserted today that the district attorney’s office only learned of it in late February.
Madden was arrested March 3 at her San Mateo home on an unrelated firearm charge when San Francisco police served a search warrant on the home. She has not yet been arrested in connection with the crime lab allegations.
Adachi called for an independent investigation into the crime lab’s operations, and said his office would seek the dismissal of all cases either handled directly by or supervised by Madden.
Hathaway said today that her office is also starting to prepare motions for clients who were prepared to admit to drug sales or possession to now withdraw their pleas.
Young added that the office is also considering filing appeals of prior convictions.
Young said that police should reconsider the Tenderloin buy-busts. She called them “an enormous waste of resources,” citing the costs of police overtime, jail housing and jury trials.
The vast majority of those targeted in the operations are crack cocaine addicts, who are arrested “for selling one rock to a cop for $20,” Young said. Each operation involves six to 14 officers, she said.
“Could you imagine the resources that could go to developing a state-of-the-art crime lab, instead of paying overtime to police officers who are going out on the street, into our poor communities, soliciting drugs from people on the street?” Young said.
“Go get the real dealers,” she said. “Stop soliciting drugs from drug addicts and then labeling them with permanent felony convictions.”
While a single conviction normally results in probation and some jail time, subsequent convictions usually bring a three- to four-year prison sentence, according to Young.
“And you don’t get drug treatment in state prison,” she said.