Big changes may be coming at the state crime lab

Published: Jan. 13, 2023 at 11:13 AM CST
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - The Attorney General is looking to make a big change at the state crime lab.

Right now, the Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the state crime lab are two separate entities. The BCI investigates crimes, and they send evidence over to the crime lab for testing. But Attorney General Drew Wrigley is proposing for a change, in which the BCI and the state crime lab would all be under one administrative umbrella. And that’s stirring up some controversy.

Law enforcement showed up in droves today to express their frustration with the state crime lab.

“We’re definitely having issues, and we need to get things back on track,” said Sheriff Jesse Jahner, sheriff of Cass County.

The issue? Evidence processing.

“It is very embarrassing to talk some of these victims, especially when they’re victims of sexual assaults, and we can’t process that type of evidence, DNA evidence. We don’t know if the suspect is out victimizing other people because we can’t identify those people. We need to make sure we can bring justice to our victims in the state,” said Jahner.

That’s why Attorney General Drew Wrigley is asking for the state crime lab to be placed under the umbrella of the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, which he oversees. He says it’ll give him organizational flexibility that will improve the state’s processing capabilities.

“This is housekeeping, this is the kind of stuff we do every day. It leaves unchanged the core mission,” said Wrigley.

Those opposed to the bill are concerned it would compromise the public’s perception of the lab.

“It’s going to end up harming both of those entities, their images or their reputation, and it’s going to affect how people look at the court system,” said Justin Vinje, attorney in Bismarck.

And why is that? Justin Vinje says compromise would come from human nature.

“If law enforcement and scientists are working together in one office, it becomes more of a team mentality, one side doesn’t want to let the other side down. And so, these issues of science that are open to opinion, open to interpretation, maybe somebody oversteps their bounds a little bit,” said Vinje.

But Wrigley doesn’t see it that way.

“It does nothing to undermine the work of the lab, and in fact, it enhances it because it’s going to make it more responsive in its workflow,” said Wrigley.

Under the proposed change to statute, the lab director and toxicologists would become classified employees, meaning they couldn’t be fired by the Attorney General without cause.

AG Wrigley says more than 40 crime labs across the country are under their BCI-equivalent state law enforcement agencies.