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Concerns about the San Francisco Police Department’s crime lab, amid allegations of mishandling of drug evidence, forced the dismissal today of several narcotics cases in court, and defense attorneys said they would seek many more.
Debbie Madden, 60, a recently retired civilian employee of the crime lab, is the subject of a probe by the Police Department into allegations she took small amounts of cocaine from evidence containers.
After a search warrant was served on Madden’s San Mateo home on March 3, she was arrested on an unrelated firearm possession charge.
Madden subsequently made allegations of her own about unprofessional practices at the lab, but Gascon said an investigation by his department pointed only to her.
Charges have not yet been filed in the San Mateo County case, and Madden has not been arrested in connection with the San Francisco case.
However, police Chief George Gascon announced Tuesday night that the crime lab’s narcotics testing would be temporarily suspended pending the results of both an internal investigation and an outside audit of the lab.
“This certainly calls into question the integrity of the crime lab,” Public Defender Jeff Adachi said at a news conference at his office this afternoon.
Adachi said 12 drug cases involving evidence reviewed or tested by Madden and represented by his office were dismissed in San Francisco Superior Court this morning, adding that his office would seek to have all cases involving Madden dismissed.
According to district attorney’s office spokesman Brian Buckelew, all narcotics arraignments, as well as preliminary hearings on narcotics cases, were discharged by his office this morning.
The exact number was not immediately available, but Buckelew said it was “probably about 20.”
The investigation could affect cases stretching back before the time period of the allegations against Madden, the latter part of 2009, Buckelew said.
In addition, new drug cases will also have to be discharged because evidence will have to be sent to crime labs in neighboring counties, the results of which will not be returned within the 48 hours required for the filing of charges, he said.
The district attorney’s office will proceed by a district attorney’s arrest warrant in those cases, “which is much more onerous and expensive,” he said.
Adachi alleged that neither the district attorney nor the Police Department notified his office about the investigation of Madden, of which they “apparently” knew as early as December, he said.
“This information should have been revealed as soon as they knew about it,” Adachi said.
“We were completely blindsided by this,” he said. “Obviously it’s very sad that this happened. But what’s even sadder is that hundreds, if not thousands of people might have been convicted based on evidence that was tampered with.”
Adachi called for an independent investigation into the crime lab.
“The Police Department should not be investigating itself, nor should the district attorney,” Adachi said.
Buckelew said an investigation was “entirely appropriate” but declined to comment specifically about who should conduct it.
“Something like this that cuts to the integrity of the whole system, you want to make sure you get it right,” he said.
Deputy Public Defender Bicka Barlow said she has been working on cases involving the San Francisco Police Department’s crime lab since 1996, “And they do have a long history of problems at the lab.”
Barlow said her primary concern was a “lack of transparency.”
“The lab does not open its doors to people like us,” she said. In contrast, she said, the California Department of Justice routinely allows the public defender’s office access to their case files.
“Things go on there that would otherwise not go on in other laboratories,” Barlow said. “It’s a closed and secret society of criminalists.”
An inspection report by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, based on a November 2009 inspection and released Tuesday by the Police Department, concluded that the lab was under-funded and that even mandatory overtime did not meet the requirements to complete analysis within the necessary 48 hours.
The report further cited problems with lab records documenting the transfer of evidence and with lab cleanliness.
The lab’s re-accreditation is currently being reviewed by ASCLD, which is also conducting the outside audit of the lab requested by Gascon.
Barlow said ASCLD was not “the appropriate entity” to investigate, given its prior accreditations of the lab over the past six years.