Michigan State Police Toxicology Lab: Flawless Perfection

The Michigan State Police Toxicology Unit analyzes blood and urine samples for drugs and alcohol, often times for enforcing Michigan’s DUI laws. Each year, the laboratory performs 13,000 tests for alcohol and 2,500 tests for drugs. Although blood is generally more reliable than breath testing for alcohol, it is not infallible. Blood samples are frequently handled improperly. These samples are not refrigerated until they reach the state lab, and the samples are not tested for weeks or months. The glucose in the blood can occasionally undergo a process of fermentation, creating alcohol and raising the apparent alcohol of the suspect driver. The alcohol created during the fermentation process cannot be separated from the alcohol consumed by the motorist. Another problem that can occur is simple human error. The lab receives many blood samples each day, and if a single vial of blood is mistakenly mixed up, a sober motorist appears guilty because someone else was drunk. These human errors tend to occur more frequently in labs with relaxed testing standards and uncertified technicians. The Michigan State Police lab has lab protocols, but these protocols are extremely lax compared to private laboratories, and analysts are given crash courses in alcohol toxicology at schools run by prosecutors and prosecution experts. Despite these relaxed standards, the lab analysts are not simply technicians when they testify in court. They are dubbed with the very official sounding title of “forensic scientist.” You might wonder how often errors occur at our Michigan State Police lab. According to the chief toxicologist, Dr. Felix Adatsi, the answer is “Never.” Dr. Adatsi recently testified that out of almost a quarter of a million blood tests, the state lab has never made a mistake. They have never mixed up a sample, they have never erroneously reported someone to be intoxicated when the driver was actually innocent, and they have never made a mistake. Within just a few days of Dr. Adatsi’s testimony, a report was released stating that, “For decades, the forensic science disciplines have produced valuable evidence that has contributed to the successful prosecution and conviction of criminals . . . . Those advances, however, also have revealed that, in some cases, substantive information and testimony based on faulty forensic science analyses may have contributed to wrongful convictions of innocent people. This fact has demonstrated the potential danger of giving undue weight to evidence and testimony derived from imperfect testing and analysis. Moreover, imprecise or exaggerated expert testimony has sometimes contributed to the admission of erroneous or misleading evidence.” What radical organization published this indictment against forensic scientists? If you are thinking that this report was released by the ACLU or a criminal defense lawyers organization, you are mistaken. The press release entitled, “‘Badly Fragmented’ Forensic Science System Needs Overhaul; Evidence to Support Reliability of Many Techniques Is Lacking,” reveals that this study was “a congressionally mandated report from the National Research Council.” The National Research Council operates under The National Academies. The National Academy of Sciences was created by the federal government to be an adviser on scientific and technological matters. The NRC report soundly repudiates Dr. Adatsi’s claim of perfection, stating that, “Except in a few states, forensic laboratories are not required to meet high standards for quality assurance, nor are practitioners required to be certified. These shortcomings pose a threat to the quality and credibility of forensic science practice and its service to the justice system, concluded the committee.” By claiming absolute flawless perfection in nearly a quarter of a million tests, Dr. Adatsi reveals the problems affiliated with “exaggerated expert testimony.” Originally posted Saturday, February 21st, 2009