Crime laboratories face high demands, sizeable workloads, minimal budgets, and extensive backlogs all under the scrutiny of the public eye. Misconduct occurs by agencies as a whole just as it occurs by individuals. When considering misconduct of individuals, one must consider that people are fallible and bring their own insecurities, which may influence their opinions, interpretations, and decision-making. Individuals must have an appreciation for the impact of the work that they do, while balancing not allowing that impact or precedent to sway how they conduct their work. They face the pressure of working with various professional cultures whose values, procedures, and goals differ from their own. Areas of concern where ethical dilemmas could most easily occur for the scientist include chain of custody, turnaround time for testing, preservation and sampling of evidence, and provision of adequate reports. Sources of pressure that may lead to ethical misconduct vary. First, it is not mandatory for forensic laboratories to seek accreditation. Currently, there is an elective mechanism in place set forth by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board. Many states are requiring laboratories to seek accreditation, and many of the states not required to seek accreditation still aspire to meet the criteria of accreditation because of the value it provides to the profession and to individual agencies. Another issue regarding accreditation is that the process endorses the laboratory itself, not the individual scientists. Some individuals may seek certification which addresses individual skills in specific disciplines; however, the forensic community does not currently require certification as a standard. The American Society for Testing and Materials E30 standards for forensic science are voluntary standards to assist in accreditation of agencies. Another source of pressure that influences a scientist’s experience in court is access to the laboratory and its resources. Laboratories typically support a parent agency, customarily a law enforcement agency. This means that police officers, detectives, crime scene personnel, and prosecutors have access to laboratory services, whereas defense attorneys do not necessarily have the same resources (free laboratory services) available to them. The imbalance caused by this access may provide an additional source of pressure for the forensic scientist, although it is beyond the scientist’s control.

Conflicts and frustrations among forensic scientists occur because of the law enforcement culture, the adversary system, the rules of the scientific culture, and individuals’ own beliefs (Lucas, 1989). A common problem for forensic laboratories is that some are expected to function according to the mandates of their consumers, which is often the law enforcement community or lawyers. It is not easy to determine which ethics to follow when involved with more than one professional culture. These relationships can create pressure to expand the area of ethical conduct and can have some serious consequences. First, tasks assigned to scientists by supervisors might reflect priorities set by the prosecutor’s office or the police department, whichever is the governing organization. Funding allocation to the laboratories may also be affected by the governing organization. Next, the pursuit of criminal convictions along with selective consideration of evidence may determine what information or evidence is provided to scientists to evaluate, and this is typically beyond the scientists’ control. Finally, the law enforcement agency that houses a laboratory can control rewards and sanctions for the forensic scientists. Additional pressure stems from the conflicting ethics of science and law enforcement cultures. Scientists are expected to find the right answer for tests, and typically police officers think the right answer is the one that points toward guilt of the defendant. Science is supportive in the criminal justice system, so one would expect such pressures and expectations were not an issue. Scientists must have control over their work and convince others in the criminal justice system that objectivity is of the utmost importance (Frankel, 1989). Forensic scientists with a good sense of personal and professional ethics will avoid dilemmas no matter how great the differences are in the professional cultures. These are some of the issues forensic scientists may face when dealing with the conflicting goals of scientific laboratories and law enforcement.

Barry Fisher’s (2000) Techniques of Crime Scene Investigation includes a list of ethical misconduct specific to forensic science:

  • • Planting evidence at a crime scene to point to a defendant
  • • Collecting evidence without a warrant by claiming exigent circumstances
  • • Falsifying laboratory examinations to enhance the prosecutor’s case
  • • Ignoring evidence at a crime scene that might exonerate a suspect or be a mitigating factor
  • • Reporting on forensic tests not actually done out of a misguided belief that the tests are unnecessary
  • • Fabricating scientific opinions based on invalid interpretations of tests or evidence to assist the prosecution
  • • Examining physical evidence when not qualified to do so
  • • Extending expertise beyond one’s knowledge
  • • Using unproved methodologies
  • • Overstating an expert opinion by using terms of art unfamiliar to juries
  • • Failing to report a colleague, superior, or subordinate who engages in any of the previously listed activities to the proper authorities

Forensic scientists are in high-pressure positions. Power and influence accompany the professional privilege of public trust (Frankel, 1989). This power and influence is why some courts may be against expert testimony. Professional privilege or partiality of forensic scientists is a common misconception of the layperson as a result of the CSI effect. The CSI effect is best understood as the layperson thinking he or she knows more about forensic science than he or she actually does because of his or her experience gained through popular culture. Some lawyers, judges, and experts feel that jurors educated about forensic science through shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation now demand unreasonable levels of physical evidence in trials. Other jurors may actually think there is not sufficient evidence in a particular case (e.g., Why is there no fingerprint evidence from the victim’s body in this homicide? or Why was no DNA recovered in this rape case?). There is a responsibility associated with forensic science’s commitment to serve social needs and values and that includes educating jurors as to the limits of scientific evidence. Scientists are aware of the burden to meet the needs and expectation of employers; feeling forced, threatened, or the need to pacify superiors can lead to poor ethical decisions. Finally, a major source of pressure is the preference for self-regulation in forensic science. Self-regulation requires greater internal control from every individual. Examples of individual misconduct include lying about degrees never earned or embellishing training and education received. Forensic scientists are in a unique position in that there is an underlying social pressure to the job. Law enforcement is there to get the bad guy and the lawyers are there to work for their client, guilty or innocent, but the forensic scientist is there to work for the truth, no matter who that truth supports. Due to the close working relationship of the professional cultures, it can be easy for the forensic scientist to think that they have a side in the case; it is important that the scientist remains unbiased and works for the truth, while still considering the broader social impact that their role may have on cases. Integrity in the investigation, from the crime scene through the laboratory analysis and the testimony, allows the scientist to work for the truth. Addressing bias and limitations is important. To maintain integrity, one may consider the impact that results have; the outcome not only affects the victim(s) and the suspect(s) but can also impact their families and friends, and set a precedent in court. The broader social context of forensic science must be considered. Though forensic science is a high-pressure field that has many unusual stressors, it does not excuse unethical behavior.

The professional duties of forensic scientists are coupled with pressure. Unprofessional conduct includes any actions that may tarnish the reputation of an individual, agency, professional organization, or profession as a whole or encourage the public to lose trust. Lucas (2007) provides the following advice:

Be selfish about your personal and professional reputation, don’t make ethics more difficult than they actually are, trust discomfort, and ask yourself what your mother would want you to do, if we apply the fundamental standards of science (Ethics) and personal integrity (morals), all ethical questions can be answered to the betterment of the profession and of society.

If management publicly denies that one of their scientists was dry labbing, even though he or she was in fact doing so, this demonstrates unprofessional conduct that leads to unethical conduct. It also represents that culture of the management at the agency. Dry labbing is creating scientific data without performing proper testing and is used in part to describe forensic laboratory actions of creating a report without performing tests on physical evidence. Some of the professional duties presenting ethical issues specifically for forensic scientists are stated by Doug Lucas as follows:

  • 1. The duty to remain competent in a wide range of scientific fields, while often limited resources for journals and professional meetings are available. If appropriate resources are not provided and the forensic scientist cannot meet his or her responsibility as a scientist, is it ethical to continue to present oneself as such?
  • 2. The duty to be as objective as reasonably possible in the selection of samples, examinations, and the interpretation of results. Is it ethical to ignore relevant samples known to exist simply because they were not submitted? Can one refrain from certain significant tests on request and still be considered ethical?
  • 3. The duty to act thoroughly and to produce results and conclusions within the capabilities and limitations of science and within the expertise of the individual scientist. Forensic science often involves examinations that are one of a kind. In these cases, is it ethical to not fully reveal the procedures used, the supporting data, or the result of blind trials? Is it ethical to use a procedure in the absence of such data? How far is it necessary to go in explaining things that are critical scientifically but that may have little or no legal relevance? Should the reasons for inconclusive results not be explained?
  • 4. The duty to be openly communicative. When open communication between scientists is restricted by the demands of others, the scientist is faced with an ethical dilemma. Is it ethical for the scientist not to publish the results of his or her research for the benefit of all? Should one refuse to talk to other scientists because they may have a different interpretation? Should scientists use a technique that has not received peer review? (Lucas, 1989)

Another area of scientific difficulty is having precision without accuracy. Accuracy is the degree of exactness possessed by an approximation or measurement, whereas precision is the degree of exactness with which a quantity is expressed. Although it is possible to have precision without accuracy and to have accuracy without being precise, the latter is actually the better situation (Garrison, 2004). Accuracy is extremely important to forensic science; however, it has been argued that some forensic methods are more accurate than others. DNA is said to be the most accurate forensic evidence, whereas fingerprints are considered less accurate due to conclusions based on an examiner. A precisionist is a person who quotes exact numbers instead of giving approximations (99'10.78" as opposed to 100'). Although this person seems as though he or she is a wonderful scientist, juries may be improperly persuaded by this person. In addition, such precision is an excessive and ineffective action. The aforementioned dimensions are useful for crime scene sketches requiring accurate measurements of bullet holes or angles. However, such an example is unnecessary for parking lots because the nearest inch is usually sufficient (although it depends on what is measured). As with any ethical situation, best practices and personal judgment are reliable guiding factors (Garrison, 2004).

The problem of practicing science in an adversary system is yet another reason why ethical dilemmas occur in forensic science. Some issues include the amount of detail tests or reports require and the amount of disclosure that the forensic scientist necessitates. What data are relevant versus irrelevant? An additional issue is how to decide what information needs to be presented. What extent should procedures be noted versus summarized? What are the limits and extent of reports provided to lawyers? How does the information get presented? Should the expert offer extra information in which neither lawyer showed interest? What if additional information is pertinent to explain results? Unfortunately, these problems are nearly impossible to solve due to the conflicting goals of science and law. Knowledge of the differences in professional cultures may help each profession overcome some common obstacles.

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