Lab scandal could mean 1,000+ NJ drug cases dismissed
Just a week after thousands of DWI convictions were thrown into doubt, now more than 1,000 drug cases could be dismissed because of errors at the state lab.
It was announced on Thursday that Superior Court Judge Edward A. Jerejian laid out a three-step process to review cases that may have been compromised by a technician at the New Jersey State Police laboratory in Little Falls. In two years, Jerejian has reviewed more than 7,000 cases that may have been mishandled by technician Kamalkant Shah. The cases spanned 13 counties.
In those two years evidence has been retested for more than 1,300 defendants, with as many as 1,160 defendants getting the possibility of having their cases dismissed entirely.
"The important steps set forth in Judge Jerejian's order ensure that justice is served in all cases," Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said. "We remain committed to ensuring that no conviction is upheld unless we are satisfied that any drug testing conducted was in fact reliable."
Shah's handling of cases came into question in 2015 when a colleague reported the possibility that he was mishandling a drug test. All cases he handled since he started working at the lab in 2005 have come under review.
First Assistant Public Defender Kevin Walker said that while Shah's mismanagement of cases was a challenge it has also resulted in better testing and protocols going forward.
"Hopefully with its adoption we will avoid future allegations of laboratory fraud," First Assistant Public Defender Kevin Walker said. "We commend the Office of the Attorney General for heeding the calls for reform, in the face of these allegations, and for so readily changing the testing protocol to comport with best practices."
The first phase of Judge Jerejian's order has already started. The Office of the Public Defender filed more than 480 motions for relief, of which 401 have been resolved. Grewal's office has 180 days to have the drug evidence retested in the cases still being resolved.
The judge's order also addressed defendants who have not had a motion of relief filed on their behalf, and have had the evidence in their cases destroyed. For these defendants it is up to Grewal's office to review the cases and determine whether they should go forward, or whether the drug charges should be dismissed. Defendants who are recommended for dismissal will be allowed to file for expungement with the fees waived.
The third phase of the judge's order applies to defendants who have not had motions of relief filed on their behalf and still have evidence available. In those cases Grewal's office will retest "all available drug evidence." Jerejian's order noted that evidence has been tested sp far for more than 800 defendants, and that in each case the test results reaffirmed the original test results.
Last week in a separate case, retired judge Joseph Lisa issued a report saying that the alleged actions of a state trooper who did not properly calibrate a breathalyzer device could have compromised more than 20,000 cases between 2009 and 2016.
State Police Sgt. Marc Dennis was charged in 2016 with lying about calibrating Alcotest devices that were used in three Monmouth County towns the year before.
"The evidence raises substantial doubts about the scientific reliability of breath test results produced by Alcotest devices calibrated with the use of a NIST-traceable thermometer," Lisa's report said.
Attorneys representing the state have argued that the thermometer step Dennis is accused of having slipped is not crucial to proper readings. Prosecutors have already sent letters to people whose cases may be affected if the results of the tests are disqualified as evidence by the Supreme Court.
Dennis, charged with third-degree tampering and fourth-degree records falsifying charges is awaiting trial. He was originally charged with official misconduct.
Previous reporting by Sergio Bichao was included in this report