That Forensics Lab Fingering You for a Crime Gets a Bounty for Your Conviction

Reason 24/7ReasonFueled by television crime shows, the public in general and juries in particular have been hot for forensics science for several years. The insistence that accusers put some hard science behind their allegations against defendants sounds like a positive development for due process—it certainly has prosecutors and judges worried that the CSI effect "might be raising the bar for prosecutions"—but the fact is that the hard science produced by forensics laboratories might be a tad squishy. It might even be spun to please certain parties.

Reports theNewspaper:

A recent analysis published in the Criminal Justice Ethics academic journal suggests when technicians perform forensic analysis of blood and other evidence for cases such as drunk driving, the results can be influenced by built-in financial incentives to produce a conviction. Syracuse University Professor Roger Koppl joined Meghan Sacks from Fairleigh Dickinson University argue that even if false conviction rates are very low, a 3 percent error rate could put 33,000 innocent individuals behind bars every year.

The primary problem, according to the paper, is that fourteen states reward crime labs with a bonus for each conviction they generate. North Carolina pays a $600 bounty "upon conviction" to the law enforcement agency whose lab "tested for the presence of alcohol." These incentives do not necessarily encourage scientists to lie, rather they tend to create an observation bias when measuring, for example, a blood specimen for its blood alcohol content.

The article doesn't overstate the paper's findings, which go far beyond specific concerns about DUI tests to forensic work in general. In "The Criminal Justice System Creates Incentives for False Convictions," (PDF) published in Criminal Justice Ethics, Roger Koppl & Meghan Sacks write:

Most of the inappropriate incentives we identify here are familiar to at least some parts of the scholarly community. We are not aware of any previous work, however, that reckons with the fact that many crime labs are funded in part per conviction.

In at least 14 states, state law requires that public crime labs be funded in part through court-assessed fees pay-able by the defendant upon conviction.

In effect, then, the crime lab gets a kind of bonus for each conviction. As we argue below, such court-assessed fees create an inappropriate incentive to generate findings that support conviction.

How can this be? Isn't science objective? Well...no. At least it's not in its application to crime. As Koppl and Sacks point out, "forensic science depends greatly on subjective judgment. Even fingerprint examination and DNA typing often involve subjective judgment." In both fingerprint and DNA matching, graphic results are compared to each other. The degree to which they correspond has a lot to do with personal judgment calls. They point to the FBI's false identification of a "100 percent match' for Brandon Mayfield in the 2004 Madrid train bombing as an example of the fallibility of such tests—the feds later admitted their error.

DNA matching isn't supposed to be as subjective as fingerprint matching, but "subjective judgment is more likely to enter when more than one person has contributed to the DNA sample, or the sample is contaminated, degraded, or very small." That's not uncommon at messy crime scenes.

Further complicating the issue is that crime labs generally have a monopoly over the evidence they examine, and they're usually run by police departments, which have an interest in the outcome. Add in a financial incentive for convictions, and the tendency to see what you want to see...

Outright corruption is possible under such circumstances, too. Massachusetts has thrown out hundreds of convictions in the past year after it turned out that a crime lab chemist falsified results to get prosecutors the evidence they wanted. She contributed to 34,000 drug cases that remain under review.

Follow this story and more at Reason 24/7.

Spice up your blog or Website with Reason 24/7 news and Reason articles. You can get the widgets here. If you have a story that would be of interest to Reason's readers please let us know by emailing the 24/7 crew at 24_7@reason.com, or tweet us stories at @reason247.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Live Free or Diet||

    Bit if we double the bounty for clearing the victim of the prosecution, that would be obstruction of justice, right?

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    Right. And you know why? Because FYTW.

  • Snark Plissken||

    What percentage of Americans finds this abhorrent?

  • fish||

    I'm guessing 100% here at Hit&Run;.

    The rest of America thinks that that David Caruso is just dreamy even if he's a shitty actor.

  • Snark Plissken||

    Fortunately for me, I expatriated around the third season of NYPD Blue. Like Anaheim chiles, I refuse to acknowledge the existence of David Caruso in any way, shape or form beyond that cop show that lasted only three seasons. He definitely wasn't in a film with Robert DeNiro where he played the tough guy.

  • Loki||

  • Loki||

    *do your

    TYPING FAIL!

  • ||

    I think a large percentage would if they knew it was going on.

  • Copernicus||

    " fourteen states reward crime labs with a bonus for each conviction they generate. North Carolina pays a $600 bounty "upon conviction" to the law enforcement agency whose lab "tested for the presence of alcohol."

    How can this not already have been challenged up to the SCOTUS?

    In the meantime, seems like an automatic "case dismissed" for any defendant having this kind of test done.

    Am I living in a dreamworld?

  • ||

    The Criminal Justice System Creates Incentives for False Convictions

    Yes it does, and in so many more ways than just crime lab results. Asset forfeiture, plea bargaining, prosecutorial conviction rates, police quotas, these all create incredibly negative incentives for false convictions. The whole fucking system has morphed into a huge incentive to grind as many people through the mill as possible.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    These incentives do not necessarily encourage scientists to lie

    Actually, they do necessarily encourage scientists to lie. Maybe there are other safeguards in place, and old fashioned morality probably stops most of them from doing it. But it definitely encourages lying.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    So suddenly reason is against making a profit.

  • Snark Plissken||

    Well, 2Chill3 isn't afraid of making a profit. 6 bucks (and four cents!) for the Kindle edition? I bought mine for $2.99.

  • Dave Krueger||

    ...even if false conviction rates are very low, a 3 percent error rate could put 33,000 innocent individuals behind bars every year.

    You libertarians should stop being so negative. Think how many jobs all these extra convictions generate.

  • Dweebston||

    Not that drunk drivers spend much time in jail. I'm curious whether rape cases are similarly treated.

  • Dave Krueger||

    There are all kinds of jobs besides prison guards. For example, most of drunk drivers were probably sent to some kind of alcohol abuse education where they were miraculously cured (especially if they never had a problem to begin with).

  • Gray Ghost||

    Then there's the whole rehab/counselling industry. The piss test industry. The guys who make ankle monitors, etc, etc...

  • Dave Krueger||

    Massachusetts has thrown out hundreds of convictions in the past year after it turned out that a crime lab chemist falsified results to get prosecutors the evidence they wanted.

    They were probably guilty of something. Cops just don't go around arresting innocent people, you know. You should think of this like the body count during the Vietnam war. The very fact that a Vietnamese guy (also women and children, of course) is dead tells you that he was one of the enemy. In other words, if someone is arrested, they had to have been breaking the law. How they get convicted is just a detail.

  • Loki||

    The very fact that a Vietnamese guy (also women and children, of course) is dead tells you that he was one of the enemy.

    "How can you shoot innocent women and children!?"

    "Easy! You just don't lead 'em so much!"

  • fish||

    You should think of this like the body count during the Vietnam war. The very fact that a Vietnamese guy (also women and children, of course) is dead tells you that he was one of the enemy.

    Now the ones that run.....they're VC. The ones that don't run are well disciplined VC.

  • Dave Krueger||

    :-)

  • Loki||

    Incentives, how do they fucking work again?

  • General Butt Naked||

    Dang, I bet myself 3 drinks that 4 of the 12 posts would be snarky comments about getting fingered. Looks like I owe myself 3 drinks.

  • Copernicus||

    Win Win fo' sho'.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "These incentives do not necessarily encourage scientists to lie"

    Of course they do.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    If they lie to/and get a conviction, they get rewarded, i.e., and ENCOURAGEMENT.

  • MJGreen||

    They'll finger anything with a pulse!

  • General Butt Naked||

    Finally.

  • Homple||

    I'll remember this if called for jury duty.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement