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Photograph by Jessica Lussenhop
Blood Simple: Greg Avilez, senior criminalist at the Freedom Crime Lab in Watsonville, processes evidence.

Analyze This

Police and sheriffs are dismayed at the thought of losing free state crime lab services.

By Jessica Lussenhop

I CAN tell just by looking at this that this is cocaine," says senior criminalist Meghan Kinney. She's pointing to a computer readout of numbered lines, each corresponding to different chemicals found in a sample that's just gone through the gas chromatography-mass spectrometry meter at the Freedom Crime Laboratory in Watsonville. They've got everything here: a coffinlike water tank for firing guns and studying the ballistics, a massive microscope for doing side-by-side comparisons of bullets, a huge refrigerator filled with biological evidence taped up with neon orange biohazard tape, a hydraulic lift for cars plus the cumulative know-how of their five criminalists. "Everything we do has to be perfect," says Kinney.

Since state-run labs like this one first opened in the early '70s, local law enforcement has been getting that perfection gratis. But the free ride may be over. With the Department of Justice staring down the barrel of a mandated $20 million budget reduction, the Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) is recommending that all state labs begin charging fees to law enforcement departments for each test they request.

"It's a fiscal nightmare," says Sheriff Phil Wowak. "Any increased fees at this time is detrimental to the citizens of Santa Cruz County. It would severely impact our ability to do serious criminal prosecutions."

Though some counties, like Santa Clara, and some police departments, like LAPD, have their own crime labs, 46 of California's 58 counties rely on state labs for all their forensic science. None of the law enforcement agencies in Santa Cruz County has its own lab; each sends all its evidence to the Freedom lab or to another state lab in Sacramento. The labs handle everything from blood samples taken in DUI cases to rape kits to evidence gathered at the scene of a homicide.

"This will force an agency like ours to make the extremely unfortunate decision over what constitutes a necessity to send," says Santa Cruz Police spokesman Zach Friend. "If you're the victim of a crime, you know that that crime is a priority to you. But if we were required to spend that much money, we'd have to make the determination."

Since the final decision won't be made until the state budget is passed, a list of fees has not been released. But Lt. Darren Thompson of the Watsonville Police Department says it's clear that the services don't come cheap.

"It's about $1,500 to do one test to see if one person was holding a gun that was fired. For one little package of swabs," he says. "Evidence is critical. Juries want to see it. TV shows like CSI have increased the awareness to the public. It's exaggerated, but our jurors--they want to see evidence and see it analyzed."

Friend, Thompson and Wowak all estimate that the fees will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of one year. The city of Watsonville estimated that its general fund will take a $440,000 hit; Wowak heard a past estimate of about $120,000 for the county. "A few-hundred-thousand-dollar hit would simply mean the loss of additional police staff," says Friend.

Drew Soderborg, a fiscal and policy analyst with the LAO, says the fees are simply a logical way to do things, regardless of the current financial crisis pushing the change.

"The rationale is that lab services is a local responsibility," he says. "And it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to be providing 100 percent of the services for some counties and very little to no services for the rest of the counties."

He says it costs the state justice department about $40 million to run the labs each year, and that the fees would help the labs pay for themselves. He adds that the LAO also recommended some type of break for counties experiencing financial hardship, or in the case that a large crime occurs, but he didn't specify what makes a county or crime eligible for help. And he also reasoned that a drop in the amount of evidence sent to state labs is not necessarily a bad thing.

"One concern is that if there's no fee, there's no incentive to ration use of the service," he says.

If the proposal passes with the budget, local law enforcement will have to decide whether to shop around for a private lab, contract out to another county's labs or pay the state fees. Sheriff Wowak says it is conceivable that the county could build its own lab, but in this economy that's hardly likely. And in the meantime, the amount of evidence sent to the lab will necessarily have to decline. "We always hate to get to a point where a person's case and prosecution comes down to dollars and cents," says Wowak. "But I need to be realistic about what I can and cannot do."

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