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ACLU: Lab scandals ‘inevitable’ in war on drugs

Dookhan cases are symptom of flawed drug policy, some say

Jule Pattison-Gordon

Members of the state and national ACLU are leveraging high-profile revelations of evidence tampering at drug labs to advance their argument against the country’s strict approach to drug offenses. This month, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ordered vacated 21,587 drug cases mishandled by state chemist Annie Dookhan, the largest dismissal of wrongful conviction in national history.

According to Carl Williams, staff attorney of the ACLU of Massachusetts, such mishandling of justice is, and will continue to be, a side effect of country’s criminalization of drug use and possession.

“This is not a forensics drug lab scandal,” Williams told the Banner. “What this really is, is an inevitable consequence of the American war on drugs and how that plays out in Massachusetts — this rush to incarcerate predominately black and brown folks, poor folks, and dehumanize them.”

Dookhan cases

Dookhan, who served in the Hinton State Lab, admitted to routinely tampering with evidence and falsifying results, including forging signatures and testing only a small portion of batch samples before listing them all as positive for illegal substances. Prosecutors say the misconduct was performed in an effort to bolster her productivity and reputation.

The affected cases comprise an estimated one-sixth of all Massachusetts drug prosecutions occurring between 2003 and 2012, as well as one quarter of all successful drug prosecutions occurring during that time in the counties of Suffolk, Essex, Bristol, Middlesex, Plymouth, Norfolk and Cape and Islands. In Suffolk County alone, there are approximately 7,500 defendants and 15,570 viable drug convictions to be dismissed, according to the district attorney’s office.

The ACLU of Massachusetts, the national ACLU, Fick & Mark LLP law firm and the state public defender’s office spent years in litigation, fighting for the affected cases’ dismissals.

Lives changed

Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley’s office states that no defendant who underwent incarceration did so solely on the basis of a drug conviction related to Dookhan’s work. According to the D.A.’s office, within days of being alerted to the questionable integrity of the evidence, officials released defendants who were held on bail due Dookhan’s results and stayed the sentence of incarcerated defendants until officials could ascertain the reliability of the drug evidence.

“Importantly, none of the defendants whose cases were dismissed today is serving a committed sentence solely on a Dookhan-related drug conviction,” the D.A.’s office said. “Few, if any, who were charged only with low-level, non-violent drug offenses served even a single day behind bars.”

However, lawyers representing the defendants say that as a result of Dookhan’s actions, some individuals did wrongly serve time and probation. In other cases, damages suffered included loss of driver’s licenses and access to public housing, lessened ability to acquire student loans, financial burden from probation fees and fines and black marks on their records that could negatively impact ability to attain jobs, they said.

“Although the so-called ‘Dookhan defendants’ completed their lengthy prison sentences, they continued to suffer the harsh collateral consequences of their tainted convictions, which limited employment prospects, diminished housing opportunities and threatened lawful immigration status,” Fick & Marx LLP’s Daniel Marx said in a statement. Marx represented the petitioners as pro bono counsel. “Doing right by the victims of the drug lab scandal is critical to restoring the integrity of the criminal justice system.”

Some of the affected are immigrants who have since been deported or entered into deportation procedures, Williams said. Righting that harm may not be possible.

“Even contacting those people [who have been deported] is complicated,” Williams said. “If the person is in Cape Verde or the Dominican Republic or another place, that’s a complicated situation.”

Dookhan’s is not the only drug lab facing scandal. Legal action continues regarding the work of state crime lab chemist Sonja Farak, who allegedly stole and used cocaine she was responsible for testing. Approximately 18,000 convictions may be overturned as a result.

Legal system and drugs

For Williams, the Dookhan scandal is evidence that the nation’s crackdown on drug offenses is unwarrantedly overzealous. He said that many of the Dookhan cases involved people who were substance users, not dealers, and that many were juveniles — details that belie any argument that fast-paced prosecution was needed to ensure public safety.

Ezekiel Edwards, Director of the National ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, had similar words.

“This day [of dismissals] would never have been needed if the powers that be had taken a smarter, more thoughtful, more public health-oriented approach to drugs. Widespread injustice like this should prompt not just Massachusetts, but every state, to declare an end to our country’s failed, costly, unfair war on drugs, and to reduce the thousands of unnecessary arrests and prosecutions taking place every day across this country,” Edwards said in a statement.

Williams suggested it will take a national policy change to prevent further drug lab scandals.

“The position of the ACLU is that all drugs should be decriminalized,” Williams said. “In this kind of American-style war on drugs, injustices like this are inevitable. The other thing that’s inevitable is that the ACLU and our allies will fight this. We’ll fight for due process…and for black and brown and poor communities against the tragically flawed war on drugs.”

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