Follow-up Audit of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Laboratory Operations*
Report No. 04-17
Office of the Inspector General
The Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) forensic laboratories analyze evidence to support the investigation and prosecution of drug-related crimes and the development of intelligence related to drug trafficking. They also perform research pertaining to the analysis of controlled substances. The DEA’s Office of Forensic Sciences operates seven regional and two specialized laboratories. Three sub-regional laboratories, one of which is mobile, supplement the seven regional laboratories.1
Most exhibits received by DEA laboratories come from DEA investigations and joint investigations between the DEA and other agencies, but laboratory customers include other federal, state, local, and international law enforcement agencies. The DEA laboratories performed more than 240,000 analyses on evidence exhibits during fiscal years (FY) 2000 through 2002, with a staff ceiling of 422 laboratory positions for FY 2002. (The ceiling for FY 2003 is virtually the same.) The cost of operating the Office of Forensic Sciences and all the laboratories for FY 2002 was about $51 million, and was nearly $60 million for FY 2003.
The specialized laboratories focus on research, the development of information for intelligence purposes, and computer and other digital exhibits. The Special Testing and Research Laboratory (STRL) performs research related to the analysis of controlled substances, analyzes evidence exhibits from international sources, and analyzes samples of seized drugs to determine the sources of substances for intelligence purposes. In addition to analyzing exhibits for controlled substances, the STRL also performs toolmark and logo analyses of seized evidence.2 The Digital Evidence Laboratory (DEL) retrieves digital information from electronic devices for investigative and intelligence purposes.
The regional laboratories analyze domestic law enforcement exhibits to identify controlled substances and latent prints. Laboratory personnel provide expert testimony in court, and technical advice and support to law enforcement at seized clandestine laboratories and other crime scenes. The regional laboratories maintain custody of most controlled substances seized by DEA field offices until the substances are no longer needed to support a case, and then they are destroyed.
The DEA laboratory system has expanded the types of services provided since the agency was created in 1973. The laboratories have always analyzed evidence to identify controlled substances. The DEA’s latent print program began later with four positions spread over three laboratories to supplement services that were provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The DEA expanded the latent print program in 1991 to six laboratories to improve the timeliness and responsiveness of latent print services to its field offices. The DEL began as a unit of the STRL in 1994 and was created as a separate laboratory in March 2003.
Scope of OIG Audit
This audit was performed as a follow-up to Office of the Inspector General (OIG) Report 95-18, Drug Enforcement Administration’s Laboratory Operations, issued in May 1995. The prior audit identified weaknesses in laboratory facilities but found DEA laboratory operations and management controls to be satisfactory, with customer satisfaction ranging from favorable to excellent. The OIG recommended that the DEA consider consolidating the regional laboratories if adequate funding for replacing the facilities was not provided, and enhance certain management controls, including procedures to reduce the time between completing analyses and returning exhibits to evidence vaults. We evaluated problems identified in the previous report, including specific recommendations related to facilities.
Our objectives for this audit were to evaluate how effectively DEA forensic services support the investigation and prosecution of drug cases and the gathering of drug information for intelligence purposes, and how effectively DEA laboratories manage evidence and other controlled substances to prevent loss or compromise.
We focused our work on the regional laboratories that analyze and maintain custody of evidence submitted by domestic law enforcement agencies. We visited DEA Headquarters in Arlington, Virginia; the STRL in Sterling, Virginia; and the Southeast, North Central, South Central, and Western Laboratories in Miami, Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco, respectively.
Effectiveness of Services
We found that DEA laboratory services were very effective overall and the quality of work was well managed. The laboratory customers we surveyed about the outcomes and timeliness of laboratory services on 635 specific exhibits reported overwhelmingly that DEA services contributed to the investigation and prosecution of cases. Customers also reported that no laboratory evidence had been successfully challenged through prosecution. The DEA had established standards and procedures to ensure the validity of results, reviewed laboratories to ensure compliance with the standards, and tested its analysts through proficiency testing programs. The laboratories have been accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors / Laboratory Accreditation Board. This accreditation means that the laboratories and their analysts meet standards the Laboratory Accreditation Board has determined are appropriate to support valid forensic results.
We found that DEA laboratory services were generally performed in time to be useful to customers; however, turnaround time could be improved, especially for latent print and digital evidence services. Customers reported that 99 percent of drug services, 93 percent of latent print services, and 82 percent of digital services were provided in time to be useful to the case. The average number of days from receipt of exhibits in the laboratories to completion of analysis during FY 2002 varied significantly, from 41 days for drug analysis to 331 days for digital analysis. The average number of days for latent print analysis for those exhibits and laboratories we were able to assess ranged from 72 to 258 days.3
The longer turnaround times for latent print and digital services appeared to be caused by a lack of resources. Although laboratory customers indicated the longer turnaround times did not ultimately affect most case outcomes, they expressed a desire for faster analyses. One DEA customer believed the lack of timeliness on a digital evidence exhibit had diminished the outcome in one case. This Special Agent believed that a conviction for a more serious crime might have resulted from a plea agreement in the case had the analysis of digital evidence been completed in time to be considered in the agreement.
Latent print services performed during FY 2002 resulted in the identification of suspects in less than 5 percent of all exhibits analyzed by the DEA laboratories. Latent prints suitable for comparison were frequently
not developed because of the nature of the materials being examined and because procedures allowed many people to handle exhibits prior to examination. The number of identifications may also be limited because fingerprint specialists did not have direct access to all the automated databases that might be useful for matching prints. Moreover, supervisors of fingerprint specialists were not trained in latent print examinations.
Our recommendations focus on maximizing the results of latent print examinations and improving the timeliness of latent print and digital evidence services. They include increasing the expertise of supervisors of fingerprint specialists in the discipline of latent prints.
Management Controls Over Evidence and Other Controlled Substances
To evaluate management controls over evidence and other controlled substances, we interviewed staff, observed procedures, and tested various specific controls. Among the tests of controls, we: 1) verified the existence, labeling, and weights of 370 exhibits from evidence inventories; 2) reviewed case file documentation accounting for the receipt, analysis, and disposition of 218 exhibits; and 3) determined the length of time that 631 exhibits had been out of the vault for analysis.
We found that DEA laboratories generally maintained effective control and accountability over evidence and other controlled substances. The DEA established procedures for laboratories to control and account for the receipt, storage, transfer, and disposition of evidence exhibits, and laboratories complied substantially with the requirements. The DEA had identified and corrected procedural weaknesses that had caused a small number of inventory discrepancies prior to 2002. Our testing at the regional laboratories indicated that the controls in place had resulted in only minor instances of non-compliance that did not constitute material control weaknesses. The DEA standard we found most frequently unmet was the policy that exhibits be destroyed within 90 days after laboratories received authorization for the destruction. We found that more than 10 percent of sampled exhibits were out of compliance with this DEA requirement.
The laboratories use two automated information systems to record and retrieve information about exhibits. The System to Retrieve Information on Drug Evidence (STRIDE) is used as a central repository of inventory and analytical information about exhibits. The other, the Laboratory Evidence Management System (LEMS), is used to track the receipt, movement, and ultimate disposition of exhibits within individual laboratories. There is no automated interface between the systems, and laboratory personnel enter duplicate data into both systems, in addition to maintaining various hard copy logbooks and forms, to maintain accountability over evidence and other controlled substances in their custody. The combination of systems is extremely inefficient.
The DEA has begun a project to integrate its information management systems for tracking exhibits. The new Laboratory Information Management System will use radio frequency identification tags and scanners to track the movement of exhibits into, exiting, and throughout the laboratory. This capability should ensure that the location of any exhibit at any time can be determined, and that no exhibit in a laboratory is lost or destroyed inadvertently. If designed and implemented properly, the integrated system should greatly improve the efficiency of control and accountability.
Our recommendation is that DEA ensure that all exhibits are destroyed within the 90-day standard.
Our 1995 audit found that DEA laboratories were generally housed in aging facilities, five of which needed to be replaced. The DEA planned to replace these five laboratories with new facilities. Our approach for this audit was to: 1) determine if the DEA had completed its replacement project and 2) assess conditions at the laboratories we visited.
DEA laboratories are located throughout the United States. The STRL is located in a new stand-alone building in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. (The locations of the regional laboratory facilities are listed in footnote 1.) The facilities in New York City, Miami, Chicago, and San Francisco occupy space in office buildings. The Mid-Atlantic, South Central, and Southwest Laboratories are housed in new stand-alone buildings. The DEL resides in a new building that also houses the DEA’s Office of Investigative Technology.
We found that since 1995 the DEA has replaced the STRL, Mid-Atlantic, South Central, and Southwest Laboratories with new stand-alone buildings and relocated the North Central Laboratory to modified space since the prior audit. These laboratories were designed to meet current standards for laboratory design, safety, security, and health. We visited the new facilities for the STRL, North Central, and South Central Laboratories. We found in these locations adequate to excellent conditions to support the work of the laboratories.
The Southeast Laboratory in Miami, however, has not yet been replaced or relocated, and has serious ventilation problems. A study performed by the U.S. Public Health Service in September 2002 found the facility unsuitable for laboratory use for health and safety reasons and recommended the DEA relocate the laboratory prior to construction of a new facility.4 The DEA’s plans to build a new facility in Miami by January 2002 were blocked by condemnation proceedings initiated by the Department of Defense (DOD), which leases land adjoining the proposed laboratory site. The DOD was concerned that the security of its Southern Command would be compromised by a building that would block a view of trespassing detectors. Congress approved the use of carry-over funds from prior fiscal years to fund an alternative plan to replace the Southeast Laboratory.
The Western Laboratory, housed in an old office building, also had a history of ventilation problems, but has undergone expansion and modifications to improve conditions. No ventilation assessment has been performed since the improvements, and some laboratory employees were not convinced the vault ventilation was adequately improved. Not only does poor indoor air quality pose potential health risks, but employees at the Southeast and Western Laboratories are not tested as part of the DEA’s employee drug testing program because potential indoor air contamination would render the results unusable.
Additionally, we found security weaknesses at the Southeast and South Central Laboratories. [DELETED]
Our recommendations are for the Southeast Laboratory to relocate to a suitable facility as soon as possible, for the DEA to ensure that improvements are made to correct ventilation problems at the Southeast Laboratory pending relocation, for the DEA to ensure that recent modifications at the Western Laboratory have corrected ventilation problems, and for the DEA to correct security weaknesses identified at the Southeast and South Central Laboratories.
*Because this report contained information designated as "Law Enforcement Sensitive" by the Drug Enforcement Administration, we redacted (whited out) that information from the version of the report that is being publicly released. Where such information was redacted is noted in the report.