Crime lab issues force county to offer deals in some cases

    The Washington County Sheriff and Attorney offices have stopped sending drug cases to the St. Paul Police crime lab and prosecutors will offer deals to offenders in some drug cases, County Attorney Pete Orput said Tuesday.
Although Orput said his office is still trying to determine the exact number of cases in which deals will be offered, he added that the number will be less than the 160 case cited in a Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune story Monday.
“There are dozens and dozens of cases we’re looking at,” Orput said. “We’re counting them by hand. I’m guessing about 50.”
The cases Orput’s office will consider plea bargains on involve simple possession charges. Orput said his office has reached deals in a handful of cases.
“We’ve resolved about 10 of them,” he said.
Orput believes the deals are a “reasonable way” to settle low-level drug cases.
“We’re still getting justice,” he said. “It still has the full panoply of punishment. I don’t think we’re giving away the store.”
Orput said he and Sheriff Bill Hutton decided not to send drug cases to the St. Paul crime lab after published reports cited issues at the lab regarding the handling and testing of evidence. Orput added that evidence in cases would be sent to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
“Right now, we’ll be using the BCA lab,” he said.
Orput cited the main reason his office and other metro prosecutors used the St. Paul crime lab was the lab’s assurances of a fast turnaround on evidence. When he learned about problems at the lab, Orput said he “put the brakes” on using the facility.
“Until I get the findings and an order from the judge, I’m putting the brakes on it,” he said.
Another issue Orput said he considered was clearing many pending cases to relieve pressure on the judicial system.
“We needed to act,” he said.
Orput said prosecutors are also concerned about the amount of work their offices will send to the BCA lab.
“The concern among all of us is that we could deluge that (BCA) lab,” he said.
Orput does not think the courts will be flooded with requests to reopen closed cases due to issues with the St. Paul Crime lab.
“Crime labs don’t like re-testing what another crime lab has done,” he said.
And Orput stressed that settling criminal cases involving small amounts of drugs will not affect cases involving those charged with dealing drugs, especially heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.
“We are going to stay firm on drug dealers,” he said. “The first-degree possession cases, those cases I’m going to keep as a high priority.”