Federal Legislation to Reform Crime Labs Proposed

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Sen. Patrick Leahy would probably poll well here in Northern California
U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) says he will introduce legislation next year to reform the field of forensic science nationwide, a move that could potentially have implications for the San Francisco Police Department's forensics lab.

Leahy, a former prosecutor, announced last week that he will author a bill early in 2011 "ensuring that forensic evidence and testimony is accurate, credible, and scientifically grounded." The legislation is intended as a follow-up to a 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences that found "serious deficiencies" in forensic work throughout the country.

Leahy explains on his website:


The legislation I intend to introduce next year will address these widely recognized needs. Among other things, it will require that all forensic science laboratories that receive federal funding or federal business be accredited according to rigorous and uniform standards. It will require that all relevant personnel who perform forensic work for any laboratory or agency that gets federal money become certified in their fields, which will mean meeting standards in proficiency, education, and training.

Forensic scientists' competence has certainly been a focus of public scrutiny in San Francisco lately. In recent weeks, SF Weekly has reported on criticisms of work done at the SFPD Crime Lab's DNA unit, including the destruction of records of a DNA sample mix-up in 2008 and a veteran prosecutor's belief that the unit's supervisor wrote a "misleading" forensic report on evidence found at a murder scene. 

It is unclear how far Leahy's legislation will reach; as forensic scientist Amy Driver notes on her blog, BulletPath, it appears that the bill will not incorporate the National Academy's suggestion that a new federal forensic agency be created to oversee crime labs throughout the country. Instead, Leahy says he hopes to "capitalize on existing expertise and structures."

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