A panel of Seattle Municipal Court judges has suppressed more than three years’ worth of blood toxicology test results involving methamphetamine and amphetamine due to meth contamination at the Washington State Patrol’s forensic toxicology lab in South Seattle.
The judges issued their ruling Feb. 10 after hearing testimony over three days in January involving three criminal cases where meth was found in blood samples from three people arrested in 2018 and 2019 by Seattle police and charged by the Seattle City Attorney’s Office with driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, a gross misdemeanor.
The three defendants sought to have the charges against them dismissed outright, but the judges — who determined the contamination at the toxicology lab constituted an “issue of citywide significance” — found dismissal was too extreme a remedy. Instead, the judges ordered suppression of positive blood test results for meth and amphetamine from March 2018 to October 2021.
Two of the three Seattle defendants also tested positive for drugs other than meth or amphetamine — marijuana in one case, morphine in the other — and the judges ruled those results can be admitted as evidence at their upcoming trials.
Scientists in the Patrol’s crime laboratory — a separate lab that handles the bulk of forensic work other than toxicology tests — started cooking meth, apparently to learn the process, in a third-floor exam room in 2002, The Seattle Times reported in July.
The scientists synthesized the controlled substance 10 to 20 times in the room from 2002 to 2011. After the crime lab moved out, the cramped toxicology lab, operating across a main hallway on the same floor, moved in in March 2018.
That November, a blood sample tested in the annex resulted in a false positive for meth, though two subsequent tests came back negative, according to the judges’ ruling. Even after the annex was shut down in June 2019 and the Patrol hired a company to decontaminate the main toxicology lab, 11 more blood samples returned “discrepant results” through April 2021, the ruling says.
That’s a dozen out of the thousands of blood samples that undergo forensic toxicology testing each year in criminal and death investigations.
Though it’s unlikely the test results for methamphetamine in the three Seattle cases were false positives, the judges found the toxicology lab committed governmental mismanagement by continuing to conduct forensic testing on blood samples from June 2019 through October 2021, when meth contamination continued to be present in the lab.
The toxicology lab also committed mismanagement by failing to disclose the contamination to prosecutors and defense attorneys before August 2020 and by failing to confirm positive test results for meth by sending second, unopened vials of blood to private labs for testing, according to the ruling. The lab has not faced sanctions or other consequences as a result of the meth contamination, it says.
The judges found no evidence that results from blood samples tested for alcohol or other drugs were unreliable and their ruling does not affect those DUI cases.
It’s unknown how many Seattle DUI cases could be impacted by the ruling, but they will be identified by city prosecutors and defense attorneys on a case-by-case basis, says a Tuesday news release about the court’s ruling.
“WSP respects the court’s findings and has been forthcoming about the challenges associated with the past contamination issues as well as resolute in our attempts at appropriate mitigation and quality control going forward. We will continue our rigorous efforts to abate any contamination,” Chris Loftis, a State Patrol spokesperson, said in an emailed statement.
Loftis said the Patrol agrees with the ruling that the likelihood of contamination in the three Seattle cases was not a reasonable possibility and that there was no evidence showing any falsified evidence or that any defendants’ specific results are false.
“We also agree with the court’s conclusion the omission of information was a result of scientific judgment rather than any desire to conceal or mislead,” Loftis said in the statement.
Defense attorney Jason Lantz represents one of the Seattle defendants, a 34-year-old woman who was arrested for suspicion of DUI in October 2019 and whose blood sample tested positive for meth, amphetamine and morphine. Though happy the court provided his client some relief, Lantz called on the state Legislature to provide more money for the chronically underfunded and understaffed toxicology lab.
Lantz said judges in jurisdictions outside Seattle have also ruled to suppress blood evidence that has tested positive for meth and amphetamine, citing cases he’s heard about in Pierce County.
The bigger picture, he said, is that the state has created a massive backlog and bottleneck by requiring all law enforcement agencies to submit blood samples to a single toxicology lab, even though other states allow police to send blood samples to private labs. As a result, it can take 14 to 18 months before the results of toxicology tests come back.
“They pushed it to the breaking point where it did break,” Lantz said of the demands placed on the toxicology lab. “This is the consequence of the failure to fund the lab. It was an inevitability that something like this would happen. This is a very predictable problem.”