A Decade's Worth Of Meth Convictions Overturned Due To Drug Lab Employee's Misconduct

from the putting-'crime'-back-into-'crime-lab!' dept

Massachusetts prosecutors are seeing a bunch more Drug War wins turned into losses by drug lab misconduct. Annie Dookhan, a drug lab technician, falsified countless tests, ultimately resulting in the overturning of more than 20,000 convictions. Dookhan was valued for her productivity, but no one above her bothered to wonder why she was able to process samples so quickly. Turns out tests go much faster when you don't actually perform the tests.

If that were it, it would have been more than enough indication the nation's crime labs need more oversight and auditing. But it isn't. Another tech at another Massachusetts drug lab is erasing thousands of convictions. Chemist Sonja Farak, an 11-year veteran of the Amherst drug lab, apparently spent much of that time using the substances she was supposed to be testing, turning in falsified test results that landed people behind bars.

The Farak investigation uncovered the drug lab's lack of standards, which included more than allowing an employee to use drugs while on the clock for at least eight of the eleven years she was employed. There's no way of telling how many drug tests might be tainted, not just by employee malfeasance, but by a lack of best practices, like running blanks through testing equipment to ensure new tests weren't tainted by residue left behind by previous tests.

The total number of convictions expected to be thrown out due to Farak's abuse is currently sitting at 7,690 cases. But this won't be the final total. Zach Huffman of Courthouse News Service reports an entire decade's-worth of convictions is being examined.

Expanding relief for a class of drug defendants whose cases crossed paths with a now-disgraced chemist, the highest court in Massachusetts agreed Thursday to throw out nearly a decade’s worth of meth convictions plus all cases from the chemist’s last four years on the job.

The state wants the bleeding to stop at 8,000 cases -- covering only those where Farak signed the drug certificate. But as the court points out in its order [PDF], this isn't just about Farak. It's about the drug lab that protected Farak and the prosecutors that protected the drug lab -- the latter of which included hiding evidence of misconduct from accused drug offenders.

The respondent Attorney General contests the petitioners' proposed remedy, as well as the result suggested by the district attorneys. The Attorney General proposes a different remedy. Based on Farak's admission that she began to tamper with other chemists' samples in the summer of 2012, the Attorney General contends that those defendants whose drug samples were tested between June, 2012, and Farak's arrest in January, 2013, should be offered the opportunity to obtain relief under the protocol established by this court in Bridgeman v. District Attorney for the Suffolk Dist., 476 Mass. 298, 316-317 (2017) (Bridgeman II).

We conclude that Farak's widespread evidence tampering has compromised the integrity of thousands of drug convictions apart from those that the Commonwealth has agreed should be vacated and dismissed. Her misconduct, compounded by prosecutorial misconduct, requires that this court exercise its superintendence authority and vacate and dismiss all criminal convictions tainted by governmental wrongdoing.

The AG's suggested fix is completely inadequate. The court's final decision covers far more than the limited one-year window of adjacent convictions the AG was willing to toss.

The class of "Farak defendants" includes all defendants who pleaded guilty to a drug charge, admitted to sufficient facts on a drug charge, or were found guilty of a drug charge, where (i) Farak signed the certificate of analysis; (ii) the conviction was based on methamphetamine and the drugs were tested during Farak's tenure at the Amherst lab; or (iii) the drugs were tested at the Amherst lab on or after January 1, 2009, and through January 18, 2013, regardless of who signed the certificate of analysis.

It is impossible this is the only state where this sort of misconduct has occurred. Testing drug samples is like any other job -- people will cut corners. But it also offers something for those with drug problems and those seeking to personally profit from their employment. Something other jobs don't offer: unfettered access to controlled substances. People will be people and drugs will disappear and results will be faked. The problem is this employee misconduct costs people their freedom. And from what's been observed in two major cases in Massachusetts, the entities overseeing these labs don't care about the collateral damage until a court forces them to.


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  • icon
    Gary (profile), 15 Oct 2018 @ 12:48pm

    Tested in Full

    Well they maybe didn't use the proper lab equipment but they personally tested all the samples they could - that should count for something shouldn't it?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Toom1275 (profile), 15 Oct 2018 @ 5:02pm

      Re: Tested in Full

      Ingest sample -> get high -> must be drugs -> give positive test result

      Ingest sample -> no high -> must be fale drugs -> give positive result out of vindictiveness over not getting the expected high

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Oct 2018 @ 1:52pm

    Countermeasures

    To discourage this form of abuse, the police should semi-routinely submit for analysis known poisons, under the heading of "Potential controlled substance." Chemists reckless enough to sample their wares then risk being poisoned instead of getting free drugs.

    Similarly, there should be periodic submissions of known innocuous substances, also as "Potential controlled substance." Labs that fail to report that innocuous substance as safe are then audited to find how they miscategorized donut sugar (for example) as a controlled substance.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 15 Oct 2018 @ 2:14pm

      Re: Countermeasures

      But what if the chemist is a *competent* addict, and is smart enough to run the chemical analysis before indulging themselves?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ShadowNinja (profile), 16 Oct 2018 @ 8:24am

      Re: Countermeasures

      To discourage this form of abuse, the police should semi-routinely submit for analysis known poisons, under the heading of "Potential controlled substance." Chemists reckless enough to sample their wares then risk being poisoned instead of getting free drugs.

      Wouldn't a more effective method be to require the testers to work in pairs at all times, at least when they have their hands on the stuff? And to switch up the pairings from time to time?

      It's much harder to keep illegal stuff a secret with more people knowing about it. And people are less likely to break the law with others watching them.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Oct 2018 @ 2:13pm

    What I still don't get...

    Putting alcohol into your bloodstream: perfectly legal. Putting methamphetamines into your bloodstream: illegal. Putting oxycodone, or other doctor-prescribed opiates, into your bloodstream: perfectly legal. Putting opium (the original opioid) into your bloodstream: illegal. Smoking a cigarette: perfectly legal. Smoking marijuana: illegal.

    I look at the list of what is legal to put into your body, and what isn't, and it doesn't look like the drugs on the latter list pose any risk that the ones on the former list don't also pose.

    It seems to me that if society has determined that it's impossible to prohibit the consumption of alcohol under the theory that people ought to be able to drink if they want (and you can't really effectively stop them anyway), the same should apply to other chemicals.

    If that chemical causes you to harm someone, then you should, of course be held responsible for that harm (especially so if you know that you're more likely to harm others when under the influence of that chemical). But it seems to me that people are killing and dying in the name of the new Prohibition far in excess to any harm that the laws criminalizing drug use are supposedly preventing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      mhajicek (profile), 15 Oct 2018 @ 2:35pm

      Re: What I still don't get...

      Don't worry, the drug war has no basis in logic. It's working entirely as intended, as a means of oppressing minorities and the poor, and of funneling tax dollars into certain pockets.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      James Burkhardt (profile), 15 Oct 2018 @ 2:54pm

      Re: What I still don't get...

      Its one of the common arguments against prohibition. And I will address that in a moment. First I note a distinction: consuming opiates with a prescription: legal. Consuming opiates without a prescription: illegal. That leads to the positive forms of prohibition: recognizing medicinal value in debilitative compounds and providing them at need.

      That said, the allowance of compounds like alcohol, that show lower rates of addiction and have a higher threshold for overdose, is known to be positive to worker morale and helps to placate the masses.

      That said, if they had a choice, alcohol prohibition would likely still be a thing. One of the few means of legal slavery is imprisonment. It is no coincidence that the first compounds made illegal in the wake of the lifting of prohibition were used primarily by Blacks and Latinos.

      Opiates have reasons for being on the lists. It is highly addictive even in the short term, and highly debilatative as the addiction develops. Our current Opiate crisis is driven in part by failures of Doctors to heed those reasons and the deliberate disregard by pharmaceutical companies.

      But not all Prohibition is about safety. Jeff Sessions comments about the dangers of Marijuana are proof of that. Despite significant individual claims of medical benefit, the DOJ still prevents any significant study. Scientists who backed the initial MJ ban did so with the caveat that the ban was intended to be short term while studies were done. They were not.

      If the goal were actually to reduce the use of recreational compounds, free treatment and counseling have shown marked reductions in drug related casualties. They want slaves to shove into for profit prisons.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 15 Oct 2018 @ 4:19pm

        Re: Re: What I still don't get...

        I'm all for banning dangerous substances like tobacco, alcohol, drugs, and prescription opiates. We should only ever consume healthy food.

        Hey! Stop looking in my trash can full of sugary drinks.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Clumsy Grace (profile), 15 Oct 2018 @ 7:20pm

      Re: What I still don't get...

      I am in complete agreement with your opinion but just want to point out that Desoxyn is prescription methamphetamine approved for ADHD and narcolepsy. I expect the absurd moral panic of the last decade+ regarding methamphetamine has probably cut into the number of prescriptions written for it but nonetheless methamphetamine is available legally.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 15 Oct 2018 @ 2:23pm

    Testing services..

    Umm..
    While working retail, we get updated and Evaluated all the time..
    from SHOPPERS(paid to see how we work) to changes int he paper work(no no reasons except to see if you read it)..
    And other ways that can end up costing you your job..

    WTF?? happened here?? no checks and balance for HOW MANY years??

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 15 Oct 2018 @ 2:24pm

      Re: Testing services..

      all they had to do was send the samples 1-2 times per year to a 3rd party.. to validate them..

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        MathFox, 15 Oct 2018 @ 2:34pm

        Re: Re: Testing services..

        and/or send in some samples with known amounts of drugs a few times a year.

        The big problem is that there was no oversight, no internal checks (hand the same sample to two chemists and compare results) and none of the higher-ups willing to take responsibility for the mess.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 15 Oct 2018 @ 3:01pm

        Re: Re: Testing services..

        all they had to do was send the samples 1-2 times per year to a 3rd party.. to validate them..

        But why? They were, for a decade, getting exactly the results they wanted. Quickly too.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      mhajicek (profile), 15 Oct 2018 @ 2:38pm

      Re: Testing services..

      The system selects for labs that produce large amounts of false positives. Accurate and careful labs are at a disadvantage. Police have been caught paying bonuses for positive results.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Personanongrata, 15 Oct 2018 @ 2:38pm

    Moral Busybodies in Government and You

    Massachusetts prosecutors are seeing a bunch more Drug War wins turned into losses by drug lab misconduct.

    Even when the government "wins" they are all losses.

    In a so-called free/open society - which the US constantly postulates itself as being - when the government arbitrarily decrees certain substances verboten all of the ingredients are present for the freedom destroying recipe of tyranny (ie rule of man).

    The US governments drug war is a complete/abject failure whose results clearly show millions of human beings lives and generations of families destroyed along with the squandering of at least one trillion tax dollars on the failed triple boondoggle of eradication, interdiction and incarceration.

    http://www.drugpolicy.org/issues/drug-war-statistics

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      mhajicek (profile), 15 Oct 2018 @ 2:41pm

      Re: Moral Busybodies in Government and You

      You are correct in the summary of results, but you fail to see that it's working exactly as intended. Its purpose has always been to oppress and to move money into certain pockets.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Personanongrata, 15 Oct 2018 @ 2:49pm

        Re: Re: Moral Busybodies in Government and You

        You are correct in the summary of results, but you fail to see that it's working exactly as intended. Its purpose has always been to oppress and to move money into certain pockets.

        I agree.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 15 Oct 2018 @ 2:53pm

    End results?

    So falsely convicted inmates are being released from jail as a result of this, right?

    Or are they still languishing in prison despite the doubt of their guilt?

    I might be paranoid, but unless I explicitly read the number of inmates set free as a result, it's safer to assume their situation hasn't changed, despite the misconduct discovered in their respective cases. We like to keep people in jail, even when they're determined to be innocent.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Oct 2018 @ 3:00pm

    We Americans really love our wars. Seems a pregnant woman has the right, why not a Meth addict? And don't give me this crap a D & C is a walk in the park. In some places the death penalty would apply. Perhaps that would slow down overzealous American prosecutors, although I doubt it. Grace, faith, hope, love, and mercy are just words, but finding someone to blame (perpetrator) is the American way.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Glenn, 15 Oct 2018 @ 3:12pm

    Given that the whole concept of the "Drug War" is a giant loss for everyone in this country, most esp. taxpayers... meh.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    crade (profile), 15 Oct 2018 @ 3:15pm

    "The problem"

    "The problem is this employee misconduct costs people their freedom"

    That's just the start. You cost the people who would otherwise have been found innocent people their freedom, cost the taxpayers the cost of the lawsuits, cost society the cost of the people who would otherwise have been found guilty people being back out on the street.

    So what happens to those who protected her?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 15 Oct 2018 @ 3:59pm

      Re: "The problem"

      It seems to me that the ultimate responsibility lies with her employer. The company should be responsible for the accuracy of their results regardless of who performed the tests. If those results weren't accurate that company should be liquidated to repay a pittance of the costs they incurred (including imprisonment) and the head(s) of the company brought up on charges for reckless endangerment and whatever else fits.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 15 Oct 2018 @ 4:27pm

        Re: Re: "The problem"

        The company, yes, but the State, too, which should have been acting to ensure that the tests it was getting back were accurate before using them as evidence in a criminal trial.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Bamboo Harvester (profile), 15 Oct 2018 @ 5:34pm

    There's a bigger problem here...

    A dozen or so I could see. Over 8,000?

    There's no way even the most incompetent Public Defender didn't challenge and have an evidentiary sample re-tested at a different lab.

    Which means the lab was *supplying* tainted samples when one was requested.

    The FBI Lab was caught doing this kind of crap 20-25 years back, the lab techs were asking who the agents wanted the samples to match to.

    As I recall, not much came of it so far as overturning cases or releasing the falsely convicted. The FBI was allowed to "handle it internally".

    The $20 "Test your kids" tests most pharmacies carry are pretty accurate - and they don't test positive for samples of sugar, baby powder, or plaster dust.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ryunosuke (profile), 15 Oct 2018 @ 6:08pm

    "Yup, this stuff is legit, I 'tested' it."

    "Nope, this isn't legit, it's criminally bad shit, I also 'tested' it."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Oct 2018 @ 6:24pm

    out of the blue's heroes, ladies and gentlemen...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Oct 2018 @ 6:39pm

    Why are matters like this being farmed out to private companies? Companies don't have the welfare of their client in mind; they're only focused on profits.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Christenson, 15 Oct 2018 @ 7:45pm

      Re:

      Because *most* organizations find a goal akin to profit, and drug convictions are easy to count.

      Getting and keeping people drug and drug-crime free is much more nebulous, especially when it goes unreported and unsolved, especially if the addicts have a bit of money.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Wendy Cockcroft, 16 Oct 2018 @ 5:53am

      Re:

      Why are matters like this being farmed out to private companies? Companies don't have the welfare of their client in mind; they're only focused on profits.

      Because certain idiots have bought into the notion that government is, in and of itself, inherently corrupt and incompetent and that the invisible hand of the market is the most efficient way of allocating resources.

      They pretend to pay attention when you point out that the profit motive inherently results in perverse incentives, then snap back to default because they're emotionally invested in their ideology.

      Unfortunately, so many people have bought into this ideology that nothing will change until the number of adversely affected people is greater than the number of True Believers.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Annonymouse, 16 Oct 2018 @ 6:45am

    Tactical Pants

    If someone is associated with or knowingly profits from a crime they are also criminally respo sible.
    Yet these prosecutors judges and the rest never seem to have the bright lights shine on them to reveal their corruption for all to see.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Boondocker John, 16 Oct 2018 @ 9:36am

    Drug labs botch

    Tim;
    What happened to the mgrs. who were directing these lab techs.? No where have I heard anything about them folks being held to account. Maybe you can look into that?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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