The Supreme Court Splits the baby in the Scottsdale Crime Lab Cases.

The highly anticipated Arizona Supreme Court opinion regarding the Scottsdale Crime Lab scandal was issued yesterday.   In a very Solomon like decision, the Court granted both sides some relief.

 

The decision contains a lot of legal nuance requiring explanation. Here is a summary and a few thoughts:

 

Admissible Is Not The Same As Reliable

 

While the Court decided the blood alcohol measurements are admissible - they did not hold they are reliable. There is a big difference.  As a matter of fact, the Court expressed its concerns with the Scottsdale Crime Lab's "shaky" evidence. 

 

The Court merely held the prosecution may present the blood alcohol measurements to a jury and argue they are reliable.  The jury will make the final decision.

 

This standard is similar to a finding there was probable cause for a person's case to proceed to trial.  However, at trial, the same evidence will now need to exceed a much higher threshold - beyond reasonable doubt.

 

What Effect Did Yesterday's Decision Have On The Lower Courts' Rulings?

 

There were two lower court rulings: (1) the trial court's ruling suppressing the evidence; and (2) the Court of Appeals ruling reversing.

 
The Arizona Supreme Court vacated the relevant portions of the Court of Appeals decision and the trial court's ruling.  It then issued a new opinion which provided additional guidance on the admissibility of scientific evidence in a jury trial.
 
The Legal Boundaries Of The Supreme Court's Decision.
 
A few years ago, Arizona adopted something called the Daubert standard for the admission of scientific evidence. This was reflected by an amendment to Rule 702 of the Arizona Rules of Evidence.
 
The Court's holding here was limited to only one of the requirements of Rule 702.  Specifically the ruling is limited to subsection (d) of Rule 702, which focuses on the reliable application of a methodology to the facts.
 
What Did Each Side Get Out Of The Supreme Court's Decision?
 
The prosecution avoids mass dismissals of cases where they claim a driver was impaired, but now they have to persuade a jury in every case that the crime lab's forensic malpractice does not matter.
 
The defense is primarily benefited in two ways: (1) the right to present all the evidence of the crime lab's malpractice is firmly established; and presumably (2) the right to obtain evidence of software malfunctions and errors from the crime laboratory also appears to be affirmed. 
 
The Court's acknowledgement that the evidence presented at the 17 day pretrial hearing was both relevant and admissible at trial, implicitly holds that the defense has a right to this evidence in discovery.  This is a significant change.
 
The majority of the evidence presented to the trial court by the defense was not provided by the prosecution.  It was obtained through the collaboration of the defense community and through requests made pursuant to Arizona's public records laws.  
 
Moreover, before the pretrial hearing, there was a court order requiring the Scottsdale Crime Lab to provide the defense with all the data produced in 2011.  They were given a significant amount of time to comply, but did not even attempt to gather the information. Instead, the prosecution appealed the order, and the Arizona Court of Appeals reversed.  
 
The prosecution convinced the appellate court that the defense was merely on a "fishing expedition."  However, in hindsight, it turns out there were some pretty big fish in the pond. We can only imagine what we would have found if the yesterday's opinion had been in place at that time.
 
The holding also appears to clear the way for the defense to present a jury with evidence of the hundreds of catastrophic software malfunctions resulting in unreliable and misleading evidence.  The jury may now discover, that for years, the lab hid this damming evidence.  They may hear of internal crime lab emails from analysts admitting to deleting "incorrect results." 
 
And yes, prior to this decision, the prosecution vigorously argued the jury should not hear this evidence.
 
Does This Decision End The Debate Over The Scottsdale Crime Lab's Forensic Malpractice Issues?
 
Nope.
 
The issues will continue to be litigated - one case at a time. However, we now have some new rules of the road that empower the defense to present their case.  
 
In Sum
 
...the decision means we can't shop for justice at Costco. While there will not be a bulk dismissal of consolidated cases, we still get to present these issues one case at a time...jury by jury. 
 
This could take a while.
 
RELATED:
 
 

Arizona Supreme Court: Scottsdale Crime Lab Update

Tomorrow around 10:00 a.m. the Arizona Supreme Court will issue its decision regarding the Scottsdale Crime Lab.  Here are some of the new stories about the case of STATE v HON. BERNSTEIN/HERMAN:

I will provide a summary of the Supreme Court's opinion following its release.

Lawrence Koplow

The Scottsdale Crime Lab cases will be reviewed by the Arizona Supreme Court

The Arizona Supreme Court has decided to review the Court of Appeals' (COA) ruling regarding whether Scottsdale DUI results can be trusted.  

Our ongoing legal battle over the defective software used by the Scottsdale Crime Lab (SCL) to measure BAC levels begins its final stage.  The Supreme Court granted our request to review the COA's decision permitting prosecutors to rely upon the measurements generated by this software as a basis for a DUI conviction. 

 

WHAT HAPPENED?

Over three years ago a few chromatograms (a graphical representation of a blood alcohol measurement) escaped the Scottsdale crime lab (SCL).  It was something we had never seen before. The floodgates of evidence showing forensic malpractice soon opened.  

We learned, that for several years, the SCL had known of serious defects in the software used to measure BACs.  These malfunctions include assigning an incorrect result with the incorrect person (i.e. John gets Fred's result).  No one in the lab had the expertise to explain why this was occurring, or how to "fix" it.  According to an internal email we obtained from the SCL, they "buried" this from the rest of us.

Even after the defense brought this to light, the Prosecution continued to prosecute the public using this unreliable software.  The penalties for those convicted include mandatorily incarceration and significant monetary fines (a portion of which the crime lab receives).  They are currently still using these defective measurements to incarcerate people.

 

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

There were two primary venues for these debates: 

 

(1) Superior Court; and 

 

(2) Scottsdale City Court.  

 

The Superior Court (felony cases) is where these rulings originated.  The City of Scottsdale courts took a different approach.  That story will be addressed in a separate post.  In the Superior Court, the main case is State v. Herman (on appeal titled In Re Bernstein).  There were two challenges in "Herman" that ended up in the COA.  

 

Herman #1 (Re: Discovery) 

Because we only had access to the initial documents that appear to have been allowed out of the SCL by accident, we did not know the scope of the problem.  

We convinced two Superior Court Commissioners to hold a joint hearing.  They agreed with our arguments and issued an order to produce all chromatograms from 2011.  The Court also gave the Lab almost two months to provide them.  The deadline came and went.  The SCL admitted they did not even attempt to comply with the order.

We filed a Motion for Contempt.  The prosecution filed a Special Action asking the COA to reverse the order.  The morning before the contempt hearing, the COA stayed everything.   A few months later...

  • Result - COA reversed 

We did not get the data.  Today, the scope of the malfunctions still remains unknown. 

 

Herman #2 (Re: Reliability) 

After the COA's ruling, we requested a Daubert (reliability) hearing with the trial court.  This would be Arizona's first substantive Daubert hearing (fortunately, the evidence Rules changed in 2012 to permit such a hearing).   Combined, it lasted almost nine (9) months.  To our surprise, we ended up getting material information in the Daubert hearing (Herman #2) that we did not even think to request in Herman #1. 

At the same time, the Arizona Republic started to investigate our claims.  Through their public records requests (and later our own) a treasure trove of damming evidence was obtained.  

At the hearing, SCL personnel were testifying they understood the issues and put forth an “all was well” message.  However, in contrast to their testimony, the Arizona Republic obtained internal emails, that told a much different story than “all is well.”  Their "private" communications showed the court that the SCL personnel testifying, were less than forthcoming about the severity of the problems and their ability to comprehend them.

The combination of SLC personnel’s tainted testimony, and the testimony our forensic experts (including an independent forensic toxicologist, a certified quality assurance lab auditor, a and forensic software engineer), presented a powerful case that the SCL’s measurements and supporting testimony were not trustworthy. 

 

Arizona Court of Appeals 

As in Herman #1, the prosecution turned to the court of appeals for relief. 

Again, as in Herman #1, it was provided.  

  • Result - COA Reversed.

 

Arizona Supreme Court

Over a year ago, we filed a Petition with the Arizona Supreme Court requesting that they: 

 

(1) review the court of appeals decision; 

 

(2) and reinstate the trial court's ruling.

 

A few weeks ago, the Arizona Supreme Court decided to review the matter.

 

WHAT'S NEXT.

The Court's decision merely means they granted part one of our request: they will hear the case. They have set oral argument on February 17, 2015 at 11:00 am.  It will be a road game for the Court, as it will be held at ASU Law School.  The oral argument is open to the public, but it is expected to be a full house.  If you want to attend, get there early.

 

Lawrence Koplow

You have a bandwidth problem

An analyst from a crime lab testifies that a defendant, who is charged with DUI, has a blood alcohol concentration of .120.  Despite the legal requirements that the state must prove the test is trustworthy, most jurors have made a blink judgement the that test is correct.  As is often the case, the appearance of science is a powerful tool of persuasion.  This is true  even when the opinion is based upon junk science.
 
Here, despite the claims of the analyst and unbeknownst to the jury, the test result was done using unreliable equipment relying on defective software.  Your challenge: undo the jury's initial judgments, demonstrate the analyst is too biased and lacking the qualifications to understand the severity of the equipment's defects, and show the result can't be trusted.  This is no small task.
 
This task will take time.  It requires a thorough understanding of the many underlying scientific disciplines involved.  Adequately educating the jury will require information from several different sources.  Each piece of evidence will present a different evidentiary challenge.  In short, beyond the inherent difficulties of such cases, you also have a bandwidth problem.
 
Bandwidth is the amount of data that can be transmitted in a fixed amount of time.  DUI trials have time and evidentiary limitations.  There are not intended to be semester long science classes.  There are practical realities inhibiting you from properly educating a jury with the knowledge they need to debunk these unsound claims.  If left unaddressed, a court may not even recognize this bandwidth dilemma.
 
Consider the problem in the following terms.  A presentation that does not reach the audience persuades no one.  If Netflix creates next years best new drama, but there is not enough bandwidth to stream it, then what was the point of creating it.  No one pays a subscription fee to see a "buffering" message.  Quality is meaningless without bandwidth.
 
Being right is does not convince a jury without an adequate opportunity to present it to a jury.   In these cases, you don't have a right or wrong problem - you have a bandwidth problem.  Accordingly, neglecting the bandwidth argument can be fatal.  If you don't sufficiently address this issue, then no one may hear how right you are.

How did you get that number?

If you are making a decision based upon a measurement, then you have two choices.

 

One, you can simply accept any number a machine produces as true; or

 

Two, you can ask “how did you get that number?”

 

The choice you make should be based upon how important the decision is that  you’re basing the measurement upon.  If you just want to know how hot it is outside, a twenty-year-old thermometer, combined with stepping outside will probably do.  However, if the measurement is critical to an important outcome, then you need to ask, and answer, the question how did you get the number?

 

A critical measurement is a measurement where, the result of an important analysis, is dependent upon the measurement. A measurement is critical if an incorrect measurement could place people in danger.  If a scientist measured the wrong amount of a drug when making a pill, then it could harm someone – that is a critical measurement. 

 

If a lab employee measures the wrong amount of alcohol in your system in a DUI case, then it could result in an unwarranted prison sentence – that is also a critical measurement.  

 

Related Posts

 

What warrants a warrant?

After the Supreme Court decided the case of Missouri v. McNeely, the question of when a warrant is required, before law enforcement may draw a person's blood became more interesting to say the least.  On one side of the issue was the position that a blood alcohol concentrations is constantly changing, thus, there is a justification for law enforcement to bypass the traditional warrant requirement.

The contrary, and as it turns out the prevailing position, is that our Constitution does not allow law enforcement unfettered discretion to decided if they can stick a needle in your arm without a warrant (i.e. probable cause presented to a judge who issues a warrant).  The reality of modern technology is that a telephonic warrant can be obtained in about 15 minutes for most cases.  Accordingly, the exigent circumstances reasoning for bypassing the warrant requirement is unsound.  As the U.S. Supreme Court stated in their rejection of such a per se rule in DUI cases:

But it does not follow that we should depart from careful case-by-case assessment of exigency and adopt the categorical rule proposed by the State and its amici.  In those drunk-driving investigations where police officers can reasonably obtain a warrant before a blood sample can be drawn without significantly undermining the efficacy of the search, the Fourth Amendment mandates that they do so. See McDonald v. United States, 335 U.S. 451, 456, 69 S.Ct. 191, 93 L.Ed 153 (1948).

Missouri v. McNeely, 133 S.Ct. at 1555 (2013).

Is it really so surprising that what warrants a warrant is what is reasonable under the circumstances?

Read the "Warning Label" of your blood test

When should you trust a blood test result that claims to measures an alcohol concentration?  Start by reading the test's "Warning Label."  Here is an explanation on my legalcoffee blog.

Scottsdale DUI Blood Tests Ruled Unreliable

In July of 2012, I asked a member of the Scottsdale Crime Lab for an interview about some rumors. She refused and told me to get a court order.  At that time I was surprised.  Why would she refuse to do a routine interview? 

 Today we know the answer. 

Today we now know that: (1) the Scottsdale Crime Lab’s blood testing equipment is unreliable; and (2) the testimony of the crime lab personnel is not trustworthy.  Don’t take my word for it – just read the court’s opinion by clicking here.

Blood Testing Is About More Than A Machine

In DUI cases, an accurate blood test result requires more than just the blood tester to be working properly. A reliable test results requires more than than what the machine (the blood tester) provides.  As shown below, see the machine is just a fraction of the process need to obtain an accurate and reliable result.

Usually the government only puts safeguard in place to prevent machine errors.  Consequently the majority of the blood testing process will go unchecked and subject to human error.       

 

How accurate is blood testing for alcohol?

The truth of the matter is we don’t really know. Most labs in the Phoenix Arizona area claim to be accurate within 5%. That means if your blood result came back at .08, then the true result can be anywhere from 5% lower or 5% higher.

Other scientific organizations claim 5% is not a realistic range of accuracy. For example, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences claims that the accepted range of accuracy is 10% higher or lower.

After interviewing toxicologists over 100 times, doing a substantial number of DUI trials with blood results at issue, I am convinced that the accuracy is totally dependent on the procedures used by the lab, and most labs overstate their accuracy.

To support my conclusion, I need to explain how blood testing with a gas chromatograph works. At its most basic level, gas chromatography simply compares known alcohol concentrations to unknown blood samples. A blood tester does not inherently know what a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is. You must calibrate it every time you do a test. You teach the machine what a .08 is by putting known alcohol concentrations into it, and essentially build a ruler.

Most labs in the Phoenix area put four known alcohol concentrations into the blood tester to build their ruler. These known concentrations are called calibrators. It is important to remember these calibrators are water based. That is, they are known alcohol concentrations in water. See the graphic below for an illustration.


As you can see in the example, there are four points on the ruler. The blood tester simply connects the dots on the ruler. If the four places on the ruler are accurate, then you should have a fairly accurate ruler. However, many labs make their own calibrators, and there is no way to know how accurate the ruler really is. There is no outside agency auditing their work. All we have is their word that they are accurate.

In addition, while it is a good first step to be able to build a ruler using water and alcohol, we are not testing alcohol in water in DUI cases. We are testing alcohol in blood. In science, we need to take into account what is known as the matrix effect. Simply put, water and blood are not the same substance. Water does not have red blood cells, white blood cells, plasma, virus, and bacteria. In order to measure alcohol in blood, we need a blood-based ruler. However, law enforcement labs do not actually use a blood-based ruler. This is where the procedures of the lab really make a difference.

Labs will use a known concentration of alcohol in blood and compare it to their water-based ruler. This is known as a calibrator. This procedure may be acceptable if done enough times with an accurate blood based sample.

Here is the problem. There are very few companies that make the blood based alcohol concentrations, they are not accurate, and some labs use only one calibrator (not four like the water-based.) When the blood-based alcohol sample comes from the manufacturer, there is an insert. The insert tells you that the stated blood alcohol concentration is just a target value. It states that the known concentration it is really just a range. For example, I recently had a case with a blood-based control with a target value of .182. However, upon reviewing the insert that came with the sample, according to the manufacturer, .182 could be anywhere between a .166 and a .198. Thus, the ruler used is not as accurate as we would like it to be. That is a tremendous range when we are trying to determine someone’s true blood alcohol concentration. The picture below illustrates what the blood-based ruler looks like with only one this one known value.


As you can see, you can’t build a ruler with only one point on a line. Thus, with using only one known value, your ruler just is not very accurate – unlike the water-based ruler. The less accurate your ruler is, the less accurate your test result will be. Consequently, the true range of accuracy could be significantly greater than even 10%.
 

 

No Consent, No Warrant, No Blood

Some things in life seem obvious. It is hotter in the summer. It is colder in the winter. The government must get a warrant to stick a needle in your arm before they forcibly take your blood. However, this last presumption has not been so obvious in Arizona.

For years in Arizona, attorneys have been arguing that law enforcement must get a warrant before taking your blood during a DUI investigation. Unless, of course, the person “expressly consents” to the blood draw. However, many Arizona courts have held that, under Arizona law, we should "imply" your consent to the blood test. Thus, there is no need to ask for your consent, nor to get a warrant before taking blood.

In most DUI cases, officers ask the person suspected of DUI if they will consent to the blood draw. The officer will explain that if you refuse to give consent, a one (1) year license revocation will be triggered. Moreover, the officer will likely inform you that they will also get a telephonic warrant, in a matter of minutes, and forcibly take your blood. Consequently, the majority of people do give consent to the blood draw. This scenario is perfectly legal.

However, every year I see a number cases where law enforcement just takes the person’s blood without asking for consent. They merely say "give me your arm" and take the blood. Most experienced DUI officers will not engage in such conduct. Yet this situation keeps occurring. And until now, many courts have upheld the officer's actions.

On September 1, 2009, the Arizona Court of Appeals stated the obvious.  They held that law enforcement must obtain a search warrant to take a DUI suspects blood - unless the person “expressly agrees” to have their blood drawn. The Court reasoned:

Arizona’s Implied Consent Law, A.R.S. § 28-1321, requires the State to obtain a warrant before drawing a blood sample from a DUI suspect unless the suspect “expressly agree[s]” to submit to the blood test. A.R.S. § 28-1321(B), (D) (Supp. 2005).

We hold that the “express agreement” required by the statute must be affirmatively and unequivocally manifested by words or conduct, and may not be inferred from a suspect’s mere failure to communicate clear objection to the test.

In sum, there is nothing “obvious” about Arizona DUI laws.

A Person Accused Of DUI Deserves A True Second Opinion

Arizona DUI cases almost always involve a chemical test. There is a movement in Arizona towards the exclusive use of blood testing. It is well settled that blood testing is more accurate than breath testing. But how accurate is blood testing? Can it truly determine a person's blood alcohol concentration? I believe that these are reasonable questions to be asked by a person accused of DUI and facing 30 to 45 days in jail.

Under our system of justice we should demand better answers from the government than "because we said so" or "because our lab has the highest standards." Simple conclusions are not good enough in science and they should not be good enough in justice.

So who checks the government's test results in Arizona? The simple answer is the government. They merely claim to check themselves. I have yet to see one Arizona crime lab that conducts blind testing by an independent party.

Here is how the actual process works. In Arizona DUI cases, The government expert will tell juries that they do double check their work. That is, they have a quality assurance program to make sure the blood alcohol test results are accurate. But the government's oversight of their work is not what you my think. Instead retesting every sample, or randomly retesting a portion of the samples, the lab merely does a technical review.

A "technical review" is not retesting. The Government toxicologist usually puts between 30 to 40 blood samples into a blood tester. Then they turn the blood tester on and leave. The blood tester commonly runs overnight and the printed results are reviewed by the government lab person.

 

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A Well Written Post on The Source Code Issue

I ran across an excellent post discussing the source code issue.  That is, the fight between criminal defense attorneys and the maker of the breath tester (CMI) to disclose the code used in their breath testers.  CMI will not allow an inspection of the code.  Consequently, it cannot be checked for accuracy.  CMI essentially tells everyone charged with DUI to "just trust us."

Ed Brayton, a journalist and the co-founder of Michigan Citizens for Science, discusses the source code litigation in Florida.

Here's a very interesting case from Florida, where an appeals court has upheld a lower court ruling that threw out evidence from a breathalyzer test in a drunk driving case because the manufacturer of the device refused to release the source code and allow defense experts to analyze the accuracy of the machines.

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Everyone's Blood is Not the Same

Law enforcement's primary method for determining if a person is driving under the influence of alcohol is a chemical test.  That is, a police officer will take a sample of a susect's blood  or breath.  The chemical test assumes that the composition of everyone's blood is the same.  Specifically, the test assumes that all people have the same hematocrit level.  However, this assumption is incorrect.

The hematocrit level, or packed cell volume, is a measure of the proportion of blood volume that is composed by solids.   Whole blood is composed of solid particles in liquid.  the solid portion of whole blood contains: (1) white blood cells; (2) red blood cells; and (3) platelets.  The liquid portion of the blood is known as plasma. 

In this manner, if a man has a hematocrit level of  .51, then his whole blood consists of 51% solids and 49% liquids (plasma).  This solid to liquid ratio will effect the outcome of a blood alcohol concentration test.  The reason is the liquid portion of the whole blood, the plasma, contains water.   Alcohol is more susceptible of being dissolved in water than is the solid portion.  Consequently, the liquid portion of the whole blood will have a higher concentration of alcohol than the solid portion.

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