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Regional crime lab sees increase in drug cases

December 27, 2009|By BRIDGET DiCOSMO

HAGERSTOWN -- Western Maryland Regional Crime Laboratory personnel are on pace to process evidence from 200 more drug cases than they did in 2008.

"Every year, it goes up," crime lab Director Jeff Kercheval said recently. "Last year, we had a significant jump" in the number of drug cases that came through the lab, he said.

In 2007, the lab, which is in the Hagerstown Police Department, handled 889 drug cases.

Evidence in 1,014 drug cases passed through the lab in 2008, and this year that number could be as high as 1,200, Kercheval said.

Drug cases easily make up the highest volume of cases handled by the forensics lab -- close to 90 percent, Kercheval said.

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The lab handles the forensics work for the Hagerstown Police Department, Washington County Sheriff's Office and local municipalities -- all cases not handled by Maryland State Police.

"We may help out another law enforcement agency from time to time," Kercheval said.

Although Hagerstown lab personnel must outsource forensics work such as bullet analysis and DNA testing to the state lab, they typically try to do as much of the preliminary examinations as they can to speed up the process and to help reduce backlogs at the state level, Kercheval said.

"We try to do the legwork ahead of time. It makes them a little more efficient," he said.

The Western Maryland Regional Crime Laboratory was started in the 1980s because local police agencies faced such hefty backlogs when they sent out suspected controlled substances to the state lab for testing that drug cases were getting dismissed in the courts, Kercheval said.

A drug case cannot go to court without a lab report confirming that the controlled substance actually is an illegal drug, so a quick turnaround on lab tests is key to avoiding costly delays and dismissals, Kercheval said.

Now, instead of local police agencies waiting months to get evidence back from the state police lab -- a delay that can interfere with a defendant's constitutional right to a speedy trial -- they can have results in less than two weeks, Kercheval said.

Kercheval said the lab processes 3,000 to 4,000 pieces of evidence connected to drug cases each year, usually in an attempt to identify the type of controlled substance that was seized.

"There are a lot of drugs out there," Kercheval said.

Kercheval pointed out that as a result of the Washington County Narcotics Task Force and Street Crimes Unit, a lot of resources are devoted to getting drugs off the streets.

"When you throw more resources at drug cases, you generate more cases," Kercheval said.

The crime lab recently used grant funding to purchase a third machine -- called a gaschomatograph-mass-spectrometer -- that helps analysts obtain a molecular breakdown of unknown substances.

These machines, used almost daily, are the mainstays of the work crime lab analysts perform on evidence in drug cases.

"If police seize a bottle of pills, there may be 20 different kinds of pills in that bottle, and we have to figure out what they are," Kercheval said.

"Our nightmare cases are prescription drug cases -- very difficult to analyze," he said.

It's not unusual for someone to be arrested for selling one type of drug when they actually have an entirely different or unknown controlled substance, and that's where the lab comes in, Kercheval said.

"We're kind of the stopgap, the quality-control measure," Kercheval said.

In the past several years, the number of cases involving heroin have crept up in the region, he said.

Kercheval said drug analysis and crime scene forensics have always been his areas of expertise.

Although Hagerstown police officers are trained in evidence collection, crime lab technicians usually are called out to handle major crime scenes because they know better what to look for, Kercheval said.

"When we're at crime scenes, what we're trying to do is gather as much useful information for investigators to work with as we can," Kercheval said.

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