State Lab Backlog Hurts Local Law Enforcement

Houston County - For Houston County Sheriff Andy Hughes, the trip to deliver evidence used to be simple.

“We could take our drug evidence and go 3 blocks down the street the day after we made the drug case. Have an analysis back in a month or so and take our case to the grand jury,” said Hughes.

That was before Dothan’s forensic lab closed in 2011. Now the trip is a lot longer. The evidence has to be driven to the lab in Montgomery, and it’s backed up. This means it’s taking much longer for criminals to be prosecuted.

“An individual may sit in the county jail now up to six months before they’re actually indicted on the felony charge if we’re depending on some type of evidence from forensic sciences to come back. It may be 1-2 years before they come to trial,” said Hughes.

Jon Thomas is the only crime scene technician in the area. He works for the Dothan Police Department Forensic Services. He’s able to do some of the work like processing fingerprints and crime scene reconstruction. Even officers have field tests for some drugs, but the department still relies on the state.

“Some drugs you can just look at it and tell. If it’s a pill you can look in the drug ID bible that it is what it is, but we still have to wait for it to come back from the lab saying that,” said Thomas.

Hughes added, “To say true and correct this is cocaine, this is methamphetamine, and this is how much it was. So we’re creating a backlog in the county jail right now. Thank God it’s not too bad.”

Not too bad, yet. While the more dangerous criminals are held with a high bond, others are getting out and becoming repeat offenders before they even get to the courtroom.

Both Hughes and Thomas say things weren’t this bad before the Dothan lab was closed. They along with other agencies are pushing for more funding in the Department of Forensic Science and for the satellite offices to reopen.

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