Bucks crime lab struggles with backlog

Posted: August 26, 2014

In May, police in Falls Township, Bucks County, pulled over Corey Sean Mcgrogan after getting a call about an intoxicated driver on West Trenton Avenue.

Officers searched Mcgrogan's jeep and allegedly found a crack pipe, a syringe with suspected heroin residue, and 20 pills of what appeared to be Xanax, the prescription anxiety medication.

Mcgrogan, 35, was charged with misdemeanor counts of drug possession and paraphernalia as well as careless driving. Three months later, he's still waiting for a district judge to review his case and decide if it should go to trial.

The delay is the result of a backlog at Bucks County's crime lab for tests that identify illegal substances. It has led prosecutors to reschedule Mcgrogan's preliminary hearing three times, most recently to Sept. 9.

The delay prompted a district judge to reduce Mcgrogan's bail from $10,000 to zero in June, freeing him. But his attorney says the wait still "amounts to torture."

While no one can point to a defendant who was kept in jail for a long time due to the problem, it illustrates Bucks County's unique struggle in handling some crime-lab work on its own. The county is the only one in Philadelphia's Pennsylvania suburbs to conduct its own drug identification tests as well as blood analysis for DUI cases. The other suburban counties hire private labs or the state police.

District Attorney David Heckler said the tests are done in-house to save tax dollars and that the backlog is temporary.

It cropped up about nine months ago, partly because of the increase in heroin cases, which is happening nationwide. But also to blame, Heckler concedes, are his efforts to seek national accreditation, an unheard-of distinction for a non-urban county crime lab in Pennsylvania.

Accreditation requires more lengthy and elaborate testing procedures and protocols, often at higher costs. In Pennsylvania, the only facilities accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors are operated by Philadelphia, Allegheny County, and state police, and the private labs often used by suburban and rural counties.

In some ways, Heckler's efforts are ahead of the curve. A 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Justice found that fewer counties are outsourcing tests and more have become accredited. And a bill introduced this year by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) would provide financial support to help public facilities meet the national standards.

A 2009 National Academies of Sciences report also called for more accreditation in the nation's crime labs after finding serious deficiencies in some of them. The report also said that labs should be independent of law enforcement agencies such as a DA's office, something Heckler dismissed as "excessive concern."

But the lab in Bucks has failed to live up to the county's own expectations so far. Since Heckler took office in 2010, the hope among county officials was that the facility would take on even more testing and generate revenue by offering its services to outside agencies. That hasn't happened.

"I was under the impression that at some point the lab was going to make money," said Diane Marseglia, the county's lone Democratic commissioner. "But I'm not sure we've been able to show a profit on things yet."

The county built the lab and a new state-of-the-art morgue in 2007 at a cost of $7 million, some of which came from Department of Homeland Security grants. The DA's office has always conducted its own drug identification tests, which continued there. After Heckler arrived, he brought in blood tests for DUI cases because, he said, a private lab made a mistake.

The lab's budget has since doubled to $600,000, much of it for the blood tests. But Heckler said the county saved $165,000 with the in-house work the first year. He said the lab continues to save "significant" tax dollars, although he didn't offer a total figure.

Earlier this summer, Heckler said he addressed the backlog. Prosecutors have started to submit the field drug tests that police initially use as evidence at preliminary hearings, a common practice in the rest of the region. The official lab tests are still submitted at trial if a defendant pleads not guilty.

Heckler said he plans to ask the county commissioners for more money in next year's budget to add more staff and meet his goal of accreditation. He described the backlog as a "temporary inconvenience for permanent improvement."

"It behooves us to have a first-rate crime lab," Heckler said. "And I'm confident we're doing this at less cost. If there's a better way to do this, fine with me. I don't love running a lab. We can turn that space into a ping-pong court."

Meanwhile, Mcgrogan, the man facing drug possession charges in Falls, is still awaiting his preliminary hearing, now scheduled for nearly four months after his arrest.

"These charges should have been dismissed," his attorney, Kenneth D. Williams said. "The wait basically amounts to torture. He's waiting for his day in court, and they're holding him up and holding him up."


bfinley@phillynews.com

610-313-8118 @Ben_Finley

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