by Rick Thompson / January 8, 2016
Misreporting test results, collusion with prosecutors to turn misdemeanors into felonies.
LANSING – Formal complaints have been filed in federal court against the Michigan State Police Crime Laboratory by criminal defense attorneys who want an independent investigation into the lab’s practices and policies. A series of emails, revealed by FOIA request, illuminate the lab’s “abhorrent and illegal” compromise of scientific method to alter test results from marijuana products in a way that favors prosecutors- changes that were initiated by state drug task forces and the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.
“Our formal letter of complaint is intended to launch a serious and objective review of practices of the Crime Lab by the National Institute of Justice,” said Neil Rockind of Southfield, Michigan’s Rockind Law in a press release jointly issued with Michael Komorn of Southfield’s Komorn Law.
The letter was filed with the Director of the National Institute of Justice, Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences in Washington, D.C. It specifically cites “negligence and incompetence resulting in Crime Lab findings, integrity and reliability that are in serious doubt,” the press release revealed.
Attorney Michael Nichols of the Nichols Law Firm from East Lansing, Michigan, also filed a letter of complaint with the same agency on the same day, December 22.
“Under Michigan law, all marijuana plant-based cannabinoids and the flowers, oils and edibles containing them are controlled as “marihuana” and the possession of these is a Schedule 1 misdemeanor,” Komorn wrote in a special to The Compassion Chronicles. “Only the possession of synthetic, laboratory manufactured cannabinoids is a Schedule 1 felony.”
Synthetic cannabinoids were made illegal in Michigan in 2013 by the state legislature in response to the rise of products like bath salts and Spice/K2, drugs that induced wild and sometimes fatal side effects in users. Those laboratory substances are not included in nor were they ever part of the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act (MMMA). Despite the illegality of the possession of plant-based edibles and oils under an Appellate Court interpretation of the MMMA, those medicines are regularly used by the 180,000 patients and caregivers registered in the medical program.
“What recently uncovered emails reveal is that the AG’s office, the prosecutor’s union, and the drug task forces pressured the lab to report marijuana edibles as a Schedule 1 synthetic felony THC,” Komorn said. “Mr. Ken Stecker of PAAM and the AG’s office prompted the change… pressure also came from the drug task forces so as to better establish probable cause to arrest marijuana patients and forfeit their assets.”
Asset forfeiture by police agencies in Michigan has become such a problem that the state legislature passed a sizable bill package of reforms, which were signed into law by the Governor in 2015. Komorn says 40% of the Crime Lab work is devoted to marijuana testing; marijuana cases turn up forfeiture dollars more frequently than methamphetamine, heroin or other drug cases.
The lab-related emails reveal there was broad opposition among lab scientists and administrators to the new reporting standard, and one employee quit his job at the lab in protest. In one email, Forensic Science Division Controlled Substance Unit Supervisor Bradley Choate said, “For the laboratory to contribute to this possible miscarriage of justice would be a huge black eye for the division and the department.”
Komorn filed a Civil Rights Complaint with the US Department of Justice against two of the Crime Lab’s Directors on December 11 on behalf of his client, Max Lorincz, alleging continued violations of rights in lab actions dating from 2013.
“There is nothing worse in a forensic scientist than ‘confirmation bias,’” said MSP Crime Lab Director Gregoire Michaud, during a presentation to a Criminal Advocacy Program, as quoted by Komorn. Michaud is one of the Crime Lab officials named in the civil rights complaint.
Rockind notes that the collusion between scientists and prosecutors “is antithetical to independent and objective forensic reporting.”
In a recent interview , Komorn said, “The idea that the police and the lab and the prosecutors are all intertwined and they are one side of the team versus the defendant is inherently a conflict.”
Nichols wrote in his letter : “The problem is the interference of the prosecuting attorneys association with the reporting of scientific results. It reflects a culture that the lab and its analysts are not scientists reporting forensic analyses dispassionately in court through testimony.”
Both the Komorn/Rockind and Nichols complaints cite other issues with the Crime Lab, including under-reporting of the uncertainty factor of blood alcohol testing.
Federal action became necessary when defense attorneys discovered that the entity registered with the National Institute of Justice to oversee allegations of negligence or misconduct at the State Police Crime Lab is the State Police themselves. As documented by Fox 17 in Lansing, the Internal Investigations unit at the MSP saw no problem with the activities at their sister agency.
Specifically, Fox 17 quotes the MSP representative as saying, “ An internal policy change does not constitute misconduct or negligence. Therefore, no investigation is underway … the MSP does not consider your reports on a debate among colleagues prior to an internal policy decision to rise to the level of an allegation of misconduct.”
Despite their denials to media about their concerns over the crime Lab story, internal emails from the MSP itself reveal a great deal of discussion on the issue and media coverage of it. Attorney Nichols used FOIA to reveal a 159-page email chain regarding the prosecutors/lab scandal and the fallout from it- initiated by the same MSP Public Relations representative that claimed they had no interest in the issue.
Rockind and Komorn are not filing a federal lawsuit at this time, per the press release. The National Institute of Justice has not yet responded to the formal complaint.
The Michigan lesson is one activists and attorneys from other states should note. Monitoring the procedures and relationships formed at and by each state’s forensic services is crucial to ensuring the integrity of the judicial process.
Komorn has been documenting the evolution of the case in a blog on his law firm’s website. A summary of these articles is included below.
Written by Rick Thompson
Rick Thompson was the Editor in Chief for the entire 2-year run of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Magazine, was the spokesman for the Michigan Association of Compassion Centers and is the current Editor and Lead Blogger for The Compassion Chronicles. Rick has addressed committees in both the House and Senate.