In the event of a drug arrest, officers will likely seize drugs, paraphernalia, and other items as evidence. Recently, drug cases have been piling up in Birmingham and throughout Alabama as the jurisdictions await reports from the Department of Forensic Sciences. According to reports, the backlog has been accumulating for five years. District Attorneys are frustrated that their cases are not being heard and defendants are still awaiting charges and punishment. For defendants, the drug reports are a critical element to ensure that the property seized was, in fact, an illegal substance.
Reports indicate that there are 39,000 drug cases statewide waiting to be analyzed by the Department of Forensic Sciences. There are only two analysts working throughout the 16 county area in Alabama to provide these necessary scientific lab assessments of drugs turned over for analysis. Our Birmingham drug crimes defense attorneys are abreast of developing legal issues in the state of Alabama. We are concerned with legal issues that may impact the lives of our clients and their impending criminal matters.
According to the State Forensic Sciences director, there was no lab backlog in 2009. The backlog started after budget cuts resulted in the termination of forensic scientists statewide. The budget cuts resulted in a 40% reduction of resources from the general fund. Now there are fewer employees handing the chemistry casework, resulting in a 12 to 18-month delay. Since the budget cuts, the offices are getting sent 300 cases each month that they cannot perform an analysis on. This is exacerbating the backlog that continues to grow by the month.
Alabama legislators approved a $1.5 million increase to fund the Department of Forensic Sciences; however, the budget increase will not be effective until October. The budget increase is intended to give the department the means to purchase more advanced equipment and to make necessary hires to help deal with the backlog. Ultimately, the new budget should help to prevent future backlogs in the department.
Delays vary for cases throughout the state, but there is an average of a 15-month delay for drug cases to reach a grand jury. The prosecutors must wait for necessary forensic reports, even though they cite safety concerns associated with delays. Despite prosecutor concerns, these lab reports are critical to proving drug crimes cases. Defendants who are arrested for possession, distribution, trafficking or other drug-related crimes can challenge the allegations by requiring prosecutors provide a lab report. Some prosecutors believe that even with the general fund increase it could take a significant period of time to train new scientists. A similar issue occurred five years ago with DNA cases, but now the majority of backlogged cases involve drug charges.
To streamline current cases, prosecutors and judges are seeking to determine if some defendants will plead guilty without results of these tests. Defendants should be aware that they have the right to access lab results and that they should not plead guilty without the counsel and advice of an experienced attorney. Prosecutors are relying on defendants to plead guilty without lab confirmations, which can be hugely detrimental, resulting in serious fines and penalties.