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

Scottsdale Crime Lab: The Supreme Court's Statement of Issues

Today at 11:00 a.m. the Arizona Supreme Court will hear oral arguments regarding whether to reinstate a trial court's finding that - blood alcohol measurements created by the Scottsdale Crime Lab are unreliable.  You can read a history of this litigation by clicking here.

A case being selected by the Supreme Court for review is a rare event.  Simple math shows it is unlikely that any particular case will be reviewed by the Arizona Supreme Court.   The Court receives a substantial amount of “Petitions” to review lower court decisions, but it only selects a small percentage of them each year.  However, because the issues in this case (it is actually a consolidation of 11 cases) will have wide-ranging consequences, it was an ideal case for the Court to review.  The final ruling by the Court, regardless of who prevails, will likely affect how scientific evidence will be handled by Arizona courts for years to come.

While both parties have their own opinions as to what the key issues are, the Court will provide a summary and statement of the issues from their perspective prior to the oral argument.  Last week, as expected, the Court issued its written statement.  Below are the issues as stated in the Court’s summary:

 

1. Did the Court err by holding that Rule 702(d) challenges are excluded from judicial gatekeeping scrutiny under Arizona law?

 

2. Did the Court err in using the accuracy of the results as the criteria for a gatekeeping analysis instead of using the trustworthiness of the methodology used to generate the results?

 

3. Did the Court err in substituting its own judgment for the trial court’s without finding that the trial court’s decision constituted an abuse of discretion?

 

After reading this statement of the issues, one could jump to a conclusion from the way the issues are framed, that the Court is leaning in a particular the direction.  A word of caution – no one knows how the court is leaning.  The Court’s final opinion could easily list a different set of issues.

Today’s oral argument is being held at Arizona State University Law School.  The argument is open to the public and starts promptly at 11:00 am.  Everyone is welcome to attend – regardless of which side of the argument you are on.

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

 

The anatomy of a gas chromatograph

 

The results produced by a gas chromatograph are usually the difference between innocence and guilt in a DUI case.  The prosecution’s purported blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is typically the “end-all be-all” of their case. Let’s take a look at how this machine creates such a critical measurement.

Big Pictures Thoughts

  • If done properly, gas chromatography is a reliable way to measure the amount of blood in an alcohol sample.  However, automobiles are also reliable, but there are still thousands of car wrecks every day.  There is no presumption of reliability simply because a gas chromatograph was used.
  • The measurement process has both human components and machine components.  All steps in the process must be done correctly for the measurement to be trusted.
  • The goal of is to produce a measurement, which is both accurate and reliable.

General Principles

  • Gas chromatography is an indirect measurement.  The machine does not test liquid portion of a blood sample.  In headspace gas chromatography, the machine converts substances to a gas, and then it must separate the different types of molecules in the sample.  After separation, a microscopic amount of the gas is measured by software.
  • The machine must demonstrate it is able to separate different types of molecules before it can measure them.  If it cannot properly separate different categories of molecules, then its measurements may be artificially higher.
  • Gas chromatography is done in manner like a production line.  Multiple samples (usually over 100 vials) are being processed in a “batch.”  It is essential to safeguard against the wrong information being assigned to the wrong sample.

Vocabulary

  • Gas chromatograph - a machine that separates molecules, and then measures, the amount of the various components in a sample.
  • Gas Chromatography - the scientific process performed by a gas chromatograph.
  • Chromatogram – the graphical representation of the data produced by the gas chromatograph.  This is where you will find the final measurement.  A chromatogram is the machine’s conclusion.

The Human Part

The measurement process starts long before the gas chromatograph is actually turned on.  The blood must be collected, identified, stored and transferred properly before the sample is put into the gas chromatograph.  Even the best machines cannot account for, or identify, that a sample has been corrupted.  The principle of garbage in garbage out must be kept in mind.  That is, incorrect (or poor quality) input will always produce wrong output.  

Human are also responsible for teaching the machine a specific alcohol concentration.  The machine does not come out of the box knowing any specific alcohol concentration.  Typically a lab will purchase approximately four (4) different alcohol concentrations from a vendor.  For example, .01, .10, .20, .40 are often used to calibrate the machine. 

These samples are put into the machine and the analyst programs the machine’s software to use these values.  If the analyst tells the machine a sample is a .40 but it is really a .30, the machine cannot tell the difference.  Ensuring a calibrator is what it purports to be is known as traceability.

The Machine Part

The machine starts its analysis after a small portion (less than the size of the a single M&M) of each blood sample is put into a headspace vial. The headspace vials (usually over 100) containing the samples are loaded into a part of the machine called the autosampler.  

The samples are then heated (in a headspace tube) forcing molecules in the liquid portion of the sample to rise.  After the molecules are vaporized, a needle punctures the top of the headspace vial and extracts a microscopic portion of the gas above the liquid.

These vaporized molecules are pushed through long thin columns by a carrier gas (hydrogen or helium).  These thin columns have a chemical coating inside them designed to interact with the molecules passing through them.  The carrier gas moves at a constant pressure.  This results in different molecules in the gas to group together (e.g. ethanol with ethanol, methanol with methanol).  Each molecule group, such as ethanol, has a unique rate of speed.  This accounts for the separation of the each substance in the columns.

After each molecule group is pushed out of the column, they will be pushed to a detector.  The time when is substance exits the column is called the time it elutes.  The detector’s software has been programmed to identify different substances by the time they elute from the column.  The Flame Ionization Detector, as the name implies, then burns each molecule group and then measures how much is burned.

The software gathers the “raw data” and then processes it.  The “process data” is graphically represented in something called a chromatogram.    The measurement is found here.

The above summary just scratches the surface of the measurement process using a gas chromatograph.  If you are going to rely upon the measurement produced by this technique, then every step in process (both the human and machine) must be shown to have been done correctly.

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.