Sexual Assault Kit Tracking Now Available

In 2018, the NC General Assembly passed legislation (S.L. 2018-70) requiring the creation of the a statewide tracking system to track the testing of Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kits (SAECKs) from collection to completion of forensic testing. The tracking system is now available for all stakeholders in the criminal justice system.

For kits collected on or after Oct. 1, 2018, the Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit Tracking and Information Management System (STIMS), can be accessed to know where the kit is, in whose custody, whether the kit has reached the lab, and whether or not it has been tested—useful information for all participants in the investigation and court proceedings.

The system is easy to use: just visit the STIMS online portal, enter the serial number of the kit you wish to check in the system, and the tracking information will be returned in moments. The serial number of the kit is found on the box itself. The number may contain several leading zeroes—these may be included or omitted. Defense counsel will need to request the serial number of the kit from law enforcement or the District Attorney’s Office. Attorneys should be aware that the online system does not report the results of the testing, only the tracking information. Results of laboratory analysis are available through the discovery process.

The NC Attorney General’s Office has put together a series of instructional videos on the STIMS systems for various users:

Overview: A general overview of STIMS, why it was created, as well as applicable law and legislative history.

Survivor User: Covers how to enter the serial numbers and how to read the results page.

These videos may be useful to know how the data is entered and how the kits are tracked through the chain of custody:

Law Enforcement User Training Video

Crime Laboratory User Training Video

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How do I find NC State Crime Laboratory procedures?

Do you know how to access the lab procedures for the NC State Crime Laboratory? It is important for attorneys to review these procedures so that they understand how the laboratory evidence in their case was analyzed.

The method for accessing lab procedures changed in 2018. Previously, there were links to the current lab procedures on the State Crime Lab’s ISO Procedures webpage. Now, the Lab has placed the documents on a SharePoint site to provide access to both current and historical/archived procedures.

To access the procedures, an attorney should follow these steps (which are also described on the Lab’s website):

  1. Email the Lab (click and an email will open in a new window).
  2. The Lab will reply to your email, sending you a link to access to the policies and procedures via the SharePoint site.
  3. Access to the SharePoint site requires an active Microsoft account. If you do not have one, you may create one for free during the login process.
  4. If you have previously been granted access, you may use this link to access the site: Crime Laboratory Policies and Procedures.

In my experience, the Lab responds quickly to these requests during business hours, but depending on one’s familiarity with using a SharePoint site, it may take a little longer to learn to navigate this system. Also, because a request and a reply is needed, attorneys should request this access now, before they have a pressing need for immediate access.

As with any change, there is a learning curve, but this change is an improvement for the defense bar because it allows access to archived procedures. The Lab regularly updates its procedures, so it is important to understand both the procedure in effect at the time the evidence was tested, and the current procedure, if there has been a change.

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OCME Toxicology Lab Procedures available

The IDS Forensic website has posted the toxicology lab procedures from the NC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner here. Attorneys who would like to learn more about the procedures that the OCME toxicology lab uses to test evidence can read through the procedures.

For casework, attorneys should obtain the lab procedures that were in effect at the time that the evidence in their case was worked. Those procedures can be requested through discovery. The information posted on the IDS Forensic website should be used for general information purposes only and to give attorneys an idea of what procedures are available.

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Are you a gun nut?

If you are a criminal defense attorney working on serious felony cases, you need to have a good understanding of firearm function so that you can make sense of the forensic evidence in your case. The tutorials described below can help you gain the information that you need.

The University of Utah Health Sciences Library has several firearms tutorials posted which cover information about the different types of firearms and how they work, ballistics (the science of the travel or a projectile in flight), patterns of tissue injury, laboratory methods, and examination of gunshot residue.

The tutorials provide basic information, kind of like Firearms 101, as well as more technical information about trajectory, examination of firearms, and injuries caused by firearms.

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Hemp or Marijuana?

Your client is charged with possession of marijuana. They tell you they possessed hemp – not marijuana. Industrial hemp is not visually distinguishable from illicit marijuana. Is that a defense? I would say yes, if your client is a licensed industrial hemp farmer growing industrial hemp in compliance with all regulations. But, if your client is not a licensed grower, the argument is less straightforward.

Cultivation of industrial hemp is now permitted as part of a pilot program in North Carolina. The program is permitted under federal law. The N.C. General Assembly enacted statutes governing industrial hemp and the N.C. Industrial Hemp Commission develops rules for the industry.

Marijuana and industrial hemp are different varieties of the same plant species, Cannabis sativa L. The two species are identical in appearance, but industrial hemp is required to have less than 0.3 percent THC. See Industrial Hemp FAQs. 0.3 percent THC would not cause psychoactive effects if ingested. Marijuana typically contains 3-15% THC. See Industrial Hemp FAQs

The N.C. General Statutes define “marijuana” as all parts of the plant of the genus Cannabis. However, mature stalks and sterilized seeds and their oils are exempted from the statutory definition of “marijuana.” See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-87(16). Also, for licensed farmers, cannabis sativa can be possessed and cultivated, so long it contains a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of not more than three-tenths of one percent (0.3%) on a dry weight basis. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 106-568.51.

Industrial hemp farmers use the stalks and seeds to make a variety of products that are legal for consumers to possess. Statute defines hemp products as “[a]ll products made from industrial hemp, including, but not limited to, cloth, cordage, fiber, food, fuel, paint, paper, particleboard, plastics, seed, seed meal and seed oil for consumption, and certified seed for cultivation if the seeds originate from industrial hemp varieties.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 106-568.51. Presumably, under state law, it is lawful for consumers to possess these products because they are made from the part of the plant that is exempted from the statutory definition of marijuana; and, therefore both growers and consumers can possess them.

The amount of THC contained in these products is very low and these products are difficult to ingest in large amounts. For example, it would be impossible to ingest enough hemp rope to experience psychoactive effects.

Cannabis sativa leaves with low amounts of THC are a by-product of industrial hemp production. It’s not clear to me whether they have any industrial use in NC, though they can be used to produce cannabidiol (CBD) oil, which is a form of hemp extract which has no psychoactive effects and is used as a treatment for intractable epilepsy. Like the stalks and seeds, the leaves contain very low amounts of THC; and, like the stalks and seeds, it would not be possible to get high from ingesting the leaves.

Though the leaves of low-THC industrial hemp does not cause any psychoactive effect, they are not exempted from the statutory definition of marijuana and cannot be legally possessed by anyone other than a licensed hemp grower. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-87(16). The only other exemption for a hemp product in the General Statues is an exemption for use or possession of hemp extract for certain medical purposes. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-94.1.

So, if the leaves do not pose a public health threat, why is it illegal to possess them? One could argue that leaves that are visually identical to marijuana could be sold as a counterfeit controlled substance, so there is a public policy interest in their possession remaining illegal. However, given that these leaves are incapable of causing any psychoactive effects when ingested or consumed, from a public health perspective, it seems that possessing the leaves is as innocuous as possessing hemp rope. Given that low-THC Cannabis sativa leaves are not impairing or psychoactive, one could argue that a possession charge should be dismissed in the interest of justice. If the person is charged with the Class I felony for possession of marijuana, counsel could argue that the defendant should be allowed to plead to the Class 1 misdemeanor of tampering with an industrial hemp crop established by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 106-568.57 rather than the felony.

I’m interested to hear from readers about how courts have handled cases involving possession of hemp leaves as this is a new topic for me given the recent introduction of industrial hemp in North Carolina.

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Scientific Terminology Explained

If you’d like to learn more about scientific terminology, Duke Law student Logan Johnson interviewed toxicologist Dr. Jay Gehlhausen about terminology that attorneys might encounter when reviewing scientific evidence. Have you ever wondered what the difference is between reproducibility and repeatability? What is the difference between accuracy and precision? What are blanks and controls?

Please take a look at the short video below to learn more about scientific research and methodology for ensuring the accuracy of results.

Scientific Terminology from Sarah Olson on Vimeo.

 

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Upcoming Programs on Facial Recognition Software and Surveillance Technologies

Attorneys frequently ask me questions about facial recognition software and about new surveillance technologies. NACDL is offering training programs on each of these topics.

On September 18, 2018, from 11:00 am to 12:30 pm, NACDL will host a free webinar about the practices, risks, and limitations of emerging facial recognition technology. With an increasing number of police departments across the country turning to unregulated, untested, and flawed facial recognition technology to identify suspects, it is vital that defenders understand the technology, its limitations, and how to challenge its use in their cases. This webinar will explore these issues with the Georgetown Law Center of Privacy and Technology’s Clare Garvie, Bronx Defender’s Kaitlyn Jackson, and computer scientist Joshua Kroll. This webinar is supported by Grant No. 2013-MU-BX-K014 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. For more information and registration details, click here.

On November 29-30, 2018, NACDL and the Berkeley Center on Law and Technology (BCLT) will co-sponsor a free CLE at the University of California Berkeley School of Law. Advanced technologies are revolutionizing how the government investigates, charges, and prosecutes criminal cases. What issues do they raise under federal law and the Fourth Amendment, and how can defense lawyers keep pace? “It’s Complicated: Combatting the Surveillance State in Criminal Proceedings” will equip defenders with the tools to recognize and defend cases involving digital searches, advanced surveillance tools, technologies, and programs. For more information and registration details, click here.

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