Crime-lab analysts should be neutral. Their job performance should be evaluated based on their accuracy. Clearly, something is making at least some of these analysts think there’s a “right” and a “wrong” answer when conducting these tests. Perhaps it’s right there in the name: the Massachusetts State Police Crime Laboratory. A forensic analyst shouldn’t be considered on the same side or team as the police. Hosting these labs under the auspices of police or district attorney’s offices is a big part of the problem.
If the lab was indeed withholding exculpatory test results, that almost certainly means some people were wrongly convicted of DUI. In Massachusetts, a first-time drunk-driving conviction can bring a one-year suspension of your driver’s license, possible probation and a mandatory 16-week alcohol awareness class (that you’re required to pay for), and thousands of dollars in court costs, attorney’s fees and fines. The conviction remains on your record permanently. If you had a child in the car at the time, you’re looking at 90 days to two years in prison and a one-year license suspension. And none of this accounts for the harm done to your career and reputation. A DUI conviction can be used against you in divorce and child custody cases. It can be devastating if you’re on parole or probation.
Given the stakes, and what we now know about the crime lab, if you find yourself pulled over on suspicion of DUI, you might be tempted to refuse to take a breath test. Generally speaking, unless you were driving really recklessly, or there are other signs of obvious intoxication, it takes a positive breath test to get probable cause to arrest you and subject you to a blood test. But refusing the test won’t help. Massachusetts is also one of the majority of states that mandates an automatic license suspension if you refuse to take a breath test. (Unless, of course, you’re a police officer, and have been extended “professional courtesy” by your fellow officer.)
Meanwhile in Texas, the state’s highest court has ordered a hearing into whether the widening crime lab scandal in Austin may have tainted DNA test results in a death-penalty case.
These scandals will continue until states and cities create systems that recognize and compensate for cognitive bias, and in which the incentive structure rewards accuracy above all else.