Strengthening Forensic Science Oversight

NCSL Resources

Legislators and Legislative Staff Reminder: You must login first to get your free copy.

Cover of Strengthening Forensic Science OversightIntroduction

According to the National Academy of Sciences, most Americans believe that forensic science practices are comparable to the flawlessly executed procedures seen on television programs such as CSI and Law & Order. While it is true that forensic investigative techniques have largely benefited the criminal justice system, some troubling deficiencies have emerged.

In June 2004, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer highlighted 23 separate incidents of error or contamination at Washington State Patrol Crime labs. Mistakes included mislabeling samples, misreporting blood stains on firearms, and contaminating evidence with analysts’ DNA. Similar errors have occurred across the nation, and some have had serious consequences.

As of February 2010, 250 Americans have been exonerated with the help of post-conviction DNA testing. Improper forensic analysis contributed in varying degrees to a number of these wrongful convictions. The exact impact is hotly debated among experts, but all agree it is a problem that can be reduced. Although human error can never be completely eliminated from scientific endeavors, states are in a position to reduce the frequency and magnitude of these mistakes by strengthening forensic oversight.

Forensic science, defined by West’s Encyclopedia of American Law as “the recognition, collection, identification, individualization, and interpretation of physical evidence, and the application of science and medicine for criminal and civil law…”, includes many distinct disciplines such as DNA analysis, latent print examination, toolmark examination and controlled substance identification. Oversight refers to procedures and standards that regulate each discipline.

The quality of forensic oversight in the United States is in need of improvement. A 2009 National Academy of Sciences report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States, cited flaws with forensic laboratories, professionals and standards. The report’s suggestions for improving oversight include mandating laboratory accreditation, standardizing procedures, certifying professionals and testing the quality of lab operations.

Of these measures, the National Academy of Sciences believes universal accreditation is the most important in developing forensic oversight because through accreditation programs all other oversight mechanisms can be implemented and enforced. While accreditation is voluntary across much of the country, a 2005 census revealed 91 percent of state-run labs, 67 percent of county labs, and 62 percent of municipal labs already are accredited.

Universal accreditation still presents a challenge, however,  because not all forensic science is conducted in labs. For example, the National Academy of Sciences reports 66 percent of latent fingerprint identification is conducted outside forensic laboratories, often in-house at police stations. Even in the few states that mandate accreditation (New York, Oklahoma, Texas) latent print units in local police stations are statutorily exempted from their requirement. These forensic units, along with unaccredited laboratories, can operate without being held to any objective standard. Without expanding oversight requirements to include forensic units, it will be difficult to achieve widespread regulation.