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Archive for Monday, February 15, 1999

KBI DRUG-TESTING BACKLOG HAMPERING PROSECUTION

February 15, 1999

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Police, prosecutors and legislators are lobbying for a fourth crime lab for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.

Like pinball wizards who have found that even they can reach overload, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation chemists who test drugs appear to be approaching a workload tilt.

Police, prosecutors and legislators say fallout from the quick-fire spread of methamphetamine has crept its way into the KBI's three labs, pushing the bureau's 11 chemists who test drugs to the brink.

Douglas County Undersheriff Kenny Massey and Dist. Atty. Christine Kenney Tonkovich are stymied because the KBI's backlog means they must sometimes release drug dealers just hours after their arrests.

Why?

Because in some cases, it's unlikely scientific testing of the drugs will be completed before the suspects' preliminary hearings.

It's not enough for police to believe a seized substance is crack cocaine, marijuana, meth or any number of other drugs. A chemist must run tests to confirm an investigator's educated guess and field examination. But those chemists are so overwhelmed, the KBI says, that it's taking more and more time for investigators such as Massey to see results.

"It's unfortunate, but it's just the way the system works right now because the KBI is so inundated," Massey said. "For the last year to year and a half, it's been difficult to get lab results back."

In an October case, police arrested a Lawrence man three times in one week. In and out of custody, the man hadn't made it to court yet because prosecutors dropped charges pending testing of alleged illegal substances.

The third arrest occurred across the street from the Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center just minutes after the man got out of jail. Police caught him holding what they believed to be LSD, hashish and a Valium-type pill.

The multijurisdictional drug enforcement unit Massey supervises usually is successful in rearresting such suspects when the KBI's chemists have finished their tests, but weeks or months might pass in between, he said. Tests for marijuana, Massey said, can take two to three weeks to get back from the KBI. Crack and meth tests take two or three months.

Police and prosecutors realize it's unlikely that drug dealers will change their ways during that time period, though they might take a break for a little while.

Neither Massey nor Tonkovich say they blame the KBI.

"It's just a very major inconvenience," Massey said at the end of a week punctuated with several arrests for crack cocaine, including a couple in which the district attorney's office released the suspects pending test results.

Backlog due to volume

KBI deputy director Terry Knowles recognizes everyone's frustrations.

He harbors his own and knows the bureau's chemists do too.

The backlog at the KBI's three regional labs -- in Topeka, Great Bend and Pittsburg -- is due to the marked increase in the number of cases counties such as Douglas are sending to the bureau's chemists, Knowles said. Meth cases alone, the most time-intensive for the bureau, were up 3700 percent from 1994 to 1998.

"We're just overwhelmed," Knowles acknowledged.

On Thursday, Rep. Tom Burroughs of Kansas City, Kan., introduced a bill asking for $964,000 to create a fourth crime lab at Kansas City Kansas Community College and give the KBI four new forensic scientists and an additional evidence technician to run it.

Burroughs, who formed a crime lab task force last year, says it's about time the state antes up some money to help ensure the prosecution of drug cases. Because Missouri has tougher penalties, dealers more and more are crossing into Kansas, he says.

The task force has been looking into ways to decrease the turnaround time so officials such as Tonkovich and Dan Dunbar, the assistant district attorney who handles most of Douglas County's drug-related cases, don't have to release suspected dealers and users. Burroughs says a fourth crime lab, which would be built in an existing laboratory the college isn't using, would go a long way toward easing the KBI's workload.

"If crime's going to proliferate, Kansas needs to get tough in our prosecution," Burroughs said. "We have continued to fail to properly fund the KBI to stem recidivism," or repeat offenses.

Catch 22 equals frustration

Massey's Tri-county Drug Enforcement Unit field-tests drugs at the scene of investigations, and those tests are acceptable for determining probable cause in a case, but they're not enough to justify binding over a suspect in a preliminary hearing, Tonkovich said.

Here's the Catch 22: If her office files charges based on positive field tests, the judicial clock starts to tick. The case must proceed to a preliminary hearing within 90 days, or it'll be dismissed. Because there's no guarantee the tests will come back from the KBI by then, officials say they are better off temporarily dismissing the charges and refiling them when the tests are completed.

"We're very reliant on those scientists for our forensic evidence," Tonkovich said. "They do their level best to help us."

But it's not just the tests themselves that are creating a logjam for the KBI's chemists, officials say. The scientists also must make time to testify in all cases in which they have conducted tests.

"And when they're in court testifying, then they're not in the lab testing," Burroughs pointed out.

-- Deb Gruver's phone message number is 832-7165. Her e-mail address is dgruver@ljworld.com.

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