A back-up of pending drug cases in Houston County has left more than 300 felony drugs cases in limbo as local officials continue to wait on lab results from the state Department of Forensic Sciences.
Houston County Circuit Clerk Carla Woodall said the more often that trials and grand juries are delayed to wait for results to come back from the lab the more work it causes for the clerks at the courthouse.
Woodall said her office has been able to handle the case load coming through the courthouse, even at less than 50 percent fully staffed. But she has also noticed smaller trial dockets through much of 2012.
But she said that doesn’t count the more than 300 drug cases still sitting in district court waiting on the labs to be completed at the state Department of Forensic Sciences for the cases to be forwarded to a grand jury.
“Our officers make all these arrests, but that’s when the ball stops rolling because we can’t get the stuff tested,” Woodall said.
She said the backlog in drug cases could have a “huge domino” effect.
“If you don’t get the convictions you don’t get the payment plans set up on the defendants,” Woodall said. “If their case is just sitting there we can’t move it along and the judge can’t order them to treatment whether it’s while they’re in prison or on probation.”
Woodall said most of the 300 cases on hold in district court are a year or less old.
Houston County District Attorney Doug Valeska said some of the backlog in drug cases stemmed from the closure of the Dothan satellite crime lab in 2011.
“The Dothan lab closing was a major blow,” Valeska said. “We lost our pathologist who could go out to crime scenes, which helped us in prosecution. We lost the drug lab, which really affected us tremendously. Now our officers have to drive it all the way to Montgomery, which takes time they can’t be working their cases. Now we have to wait for the analysts in Montgomery.”
Due to a lack of funding the Dothan lab became one of three satellite crime labs to close in July 2011. Both the forensic labs in Florence and Jacksonville also closed.
The Dothan forensics lab, located on North Cherry Street, processed narcotics for area law enforcement agencies.
Valeska said the closing of the lab means additional costs to area law enforcement agencies in gas as they deliver the evidence to Montgomery.
“We have a tremendous number of drug cases because we’re a tri-state area,” Valeska said.
Both Valeska and Woodall said the problem of a backlog of pending drug cases is not an issue unique to the Dothan area. Valeska said of the other state forensic labs, both Birmingham and Mobile are going through a similar backlog in drug cases.
“This is all because of finances, it’s all about dollars,” Valeska said. “I don’t run the department of forensic sciences. I think Mr. (Michael) Sparks does a good job.”
Valeska said some of the delay and back up can likely be contributed to new strict certification the department has been working toward achieving. He said the Montgomery lab had to pull their top analyst to help them meet the standard for the certification.
Valeska said the Montgomery lab provides forensic services for 16 counties. He also said two new analysts have been given to the Montgomery lab, but they have to be trained first.
Attorney Derek Yarbrough also said in his experience the delay in forensic evidence has been statewide.
“I think they’re having these delays all over the state, it’s not just us. When I have cases in other counties I’m seeing the same delays,” Yarbrough said. “They’re just having all these budget cuts. There’s no doubt it’s delaying trial dates.”
Attorney John White, who formerly served more than 30 years in law enforcement including Dothan’s chief of police, said timely results on forensic analysis has been an issue his entire career.
“The Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences has never been staffed sufficiently with analysts to analyze drug cases. If you don’t have a sufficient number of scientists and chemists to analyze these cases you’re going to have a back log,” White said. “I was making drug cases back in the 70s and it has always been a problem. There’s always been a shortage of chemists that analyze the substances that are submitted to the lab.”
Valeska said he doesn’t consider the delay, a delay of justice.
“I think justice is getting served extremely well,” Valeska said. “Dollar for dollar for the court system, this is one of the best circuits by far.”
Valeska said the drug cases on hold do not include marijuana cases, because they don’t need lab results for marijuana cases.
“I don’t have to have an analysis for that, but cocaine and meth are different,” Valeska said. “We have an awful lot of drug cases because we’re a tri-state area.”
Valeska said very few of the lab results on pending drug cases come back negative. He also said the defendant’s right to a speedy trial is not being violated.
Valeska also suggested the defendants with any pending felony drug charge could plead guilty prior to indictment if the delay became a concern.
“You can’t say drugs are a victimless crime because they’re not, because the person who is using them is throwing away their life. They’ll steal and rob to get the drugs. They’re just fueling the drug culture, and they’re ruining their own lives,” Valeska said. “The victim is the community and the families of those people who use drugs. Drug users, dealers and traffickers are not victims. These people pedaling death and destruction need to go to prison.”
But Yarbrough said any delay likely wouldn’t impact justice for his clients.
“Generally in a drug case delays do not prejudice the defendant like it might in a rape case,” Yarbrough said. “Generally delays in a drug case don’t really put us in a disadvantage.”
Yarbrough said he did not see the delay negatively affecting his clients.
“Ever since they closed that Dothan office you do see the delays, and you keep seeing more manufacturing and methamphetamine cases,” Yarbrough said. “I know the DA’s would like to get these tried faster, but as far as the defense I don’t see that it necessarily affects us in a negative way.”
White said the delay can leave the criminal charges filed against people in an uncertain status.
“It has always delayed justice for the defendant,” White said. “It is a problem because your defendant is kind of hung in limbo waiting to see the outcome of their criminal charge, whether or not they’re a candidate for pretrial diversion, or something that can be settled by plea agreement or trial by jury.”
Valeska said one answer to the lack of funding issue plaguing the justice system, specifically the Department of Forensic Sciences, would be to raise court costs, fees and fines on convicted drug offenders with those amounts being earmarked for forensic analysts and modern equipment.
“It’s simple to me. Justice is what justice does. You pay for justice. If you don’t provide the additional funding for the analysts and to the labs for the most modern equipment you don’t get any justice. These criminals stay out on bond and keep using and committing thefts and robberies,” Valeska said. “Let the criminals pay for all of this through additional fines and court costs. They sure have money for marijuana, cocaine, pills and dope. But they get busted on a new drug case because they spent 50 bucks on dope. It’s the scourge of our country, drugs. It’s what starts all of our problems.”
In contrast White suggested legislators allot more money to the Department of Forensic Sciences, specifically earmarked to employ more chemists to help with the backlog of cases.
“It all boils down to money,” White said. “If controlled substances are going to remain against the law, at some point the politicians are going to have to decide whether or not they want to employ more chemists to speed up the process. It’s a rather lengthy and sophisticated and timely process.”