DUI tests dubious, poor training rampant at state toxicology lab, critics say

Any government functionary worth his or her bennies knows that the ideal time for a document dump -- a release of some embarrassing matter you really don't want to talk about -- is late on Friday afternoon. And that goes double for the report Colorado Attorney General John Suthers saw fit to send along to the state's prosecutors and the criminal defense bar in the waning minutes before the close of business on June 7, detailing sizable problems in the state toxicology lab that may have an impact on the outcome of hundreds, if not thousands, of DUI cases.

Defense attorneys are hopping mad about the report, which delves into employee concerns about inadequate training, unsafe storage of evidence, understaffing, supervisor bias and other issues at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's toxicology lab, which performs various blood and drug screening tests for law enforcement agencies across the state. But they're even more furious that Suthers didn't release the report until last Friday -- even though an accompanying letter acknowledges that the report was completed in March and contained information "that could be considered mitigating evidence in the prosecution of certain criminal cases in which the CDPHE lab was involved."

"Hundreds of people have gone through the court system in the past three months without knowing about these problems or that the evidence in their case could be compromised," said Sean McDermott, president of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, at a press conference outside the Ralph L. Carr Judicial Center this morning. The CCDB is calling for an independent investigation fo the CPHE lab and greater use of independent labs in the state justice system.

The state processes close to 30,000 drunk-driving arrests a year. Most of the cases never go to trial because of the blood-alcohol (or breath) testing done by the CDPHE. But DUI lawyers have increasingly questioned the competence of the lab and the credibility of supervisor Cynthia Burbach, who is also the target of many of the employee complaints that triggered an investigation and lengthy report by the Mountain States Employers Council. Burbach retired from the CDPHE after thirty years, just days before Suthers released the report.

Continue for more about today's news conference, including the complete report. Attorney Gary Pirosko says he's been seeking information to challenge Burbach's credibility on the stand since 2009 and has been consistently stonewalled in his efforts. Law enforcement agencies "have known about a lot of these issues for years," he says.

Last month, CDPHE officials announced that they'd taken various steps to address some of the concerns raised by the investigation, such as locking refrigerators in which blood-alcohol samples are kept, reviewing staff size and scheduling additional training. But defense attorneys say the report indicates a need for a complete overhaul.

Although names are redacted from the report, many of the complaints it contains have to do with the perceived pro-prosecution bias of a certain supervisor, who was also accused of promoting a hostile work environment. One employee told investigators, "I did not feel comfortable testifying about the impairment and effects of marijuana, but [the supervisor] told me the only way to get used to it was to just get on the stand and do it. S/he did not offer any formal training."

Here's the full report:

MSEC Letter and Report

More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "Photos: Tour Denver's new $28 million crime lab."

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