The various forensic science disciplines have unique features that may contribute to unethical behaviors. Factors such as high public trust, role model positions, high stress, versatility of job positions, the need for coping mechanisms, and the potential for corruption are all possible sources of unethical behavior among those in the laboratory, at the crime scene, or in law enforcement. Television shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation put increased pressure on crime scene personnel and police officers to provide forensic evidence. The Hollywood version of forensic science also shapes the public’s perception of the relationships among science, law enforcement, and the judicial system. High-profile cases such as that of O. J. Simpson or JonBenet Ramsey thrust forensic scientists into the limelight. These situations may provide the opportunity for media attention and payment for expert opinions while creating an opening for society to scrutinize forensic science practices. Influences for unethical behavior are cultural, individual, and organizational. Cultural influences include beliefs in the possibility of change, beliefs about how laws affect behavior, and tolerance for other cultures and viewpoints. Individual influences include fear, vulnerability, and claims that certain situations are not as important as others. Finally, organizational influences encourage fear of open discussion and may create overconfident and complacent employees. Many motivating factors contribute to unethical behavior in forensic science.
The path to unethical conduct depends on factors such as how people view themselves, their careers, and the world. These attitudes or beliefs precede behavior, action, and conduct. People that act unethically commonly underestimate the likelihood that the truth will eventually come out. In addition, these people overestimate their ability to manage the situation or to succumb to pressure (Lucas, 2014). Often, cases that are in the headlines begin when someone decides to cut a corner for what seems like a good reason at the time. Unfortunately, the next time the corner becomes sharper and the incidents more severe and more frequent until the pattern is discovered. Some motives to unethical behavior may include a sense of entitlement or competition, ego, job security, recognition, demanding management, momentum, shrinking budgets, inappropriate pressures on forensic scientists, or simply the fact that it works! Privacy, anonymity, and autonomy may influence a person to feel safe. If a person feels as though his or her behavior is not monitored, he or she may attempt to get away with actions that are against the rules. Chances for unethical behavior will also increase during times of agency restructuring or growth. The most probable time for unethical behavior is when there is a disparity in ethical codes; this often happens in crime laboratories that are a subset of police departments. It is expected that a greater number of incidences occur during times of undue command or cultural influence, when laboratories have excessive caseloads or backlog, and when scientists are inadequately trained.
A person’s motivation to act unethically may include a variety of factors. It is important to first assess the person’s character by talking with him or her and his or her colleagues. The next step is to examine the person’s previous work to determine if there is a pattern of dishonesty. How people respond to allegations—for example, do they lie low or go out of their way to show their positive attributes—may provide a good indication of whether misconduct has occurred. Closely examining the relationship of people may provide an indication as well. For example, does a scientist have a close relationship with a coworker or prosecutor that could indicate a conflict of interest? In addition to the factors mentioned earlier that fuel unethical behavior, it is also important to consider reasons that are based on human factors. The following motives as stated by Howard (1986) are associated with scientists in the role of expert witnesses:
Competition: Some people in the legal system may see their actions, and the consequences to those actions, as a game.
Job security: Specifically, for the self-employed, such as independent experts or consultants.
Economic reward: When an expert receives payment to testify about something with the sole purpose of confusing the issues to damage the opposing side’s case.
Principle: When one expert testifies against another for unprofessional motivations such as revenge, spite, or economic reward.
Recognition: Forensic scientists may seek recognition and work only high-profile cases.
Ego: Some experts may feel that they do not need to prepare as thoroughly for testimony on some subjects because of who they are, the background they have, or the type of cases they work (Saviers, 2002).
Please note that there are many types of expert witnesses: Some experts are paid to consult and provide an expert opinion, whereas others testify as part of their job duties. The aforementioned motives more frequently represent consultant experts but may also apply to public forensic scientists.
A stimulus toward unethical behavior may be created when people are not properly informed of what constitutes right and wrong in a particular setting. The trainer-trainee relationship is an excellent example of informal instruction that creates gray areas and influences misconduct in a professional setting. Such relationships do not always have set guidelines, which may introduce opportunities for misconduct. Trainers or mentors may exploit new employees because of the unbalanced relationship, professional status, experience, and knowledge. In addition to the inequality, factors such as a lack of time spent with the mentor, the feeling that one is seen as a burden by the mentor, and the possibility for discrimination may impair the trainee’s ability to receive adequate training. Rules and standards assure that the mentor-trainee relationship is closely monitored to avoid problems and to foster the development of a professional. Instruction in regard to policies, procedures, actions, consequences, and the overall professional culture occurs informally but should foster professionalism and prevent misconduct. To prevent trainees from getting led astray, managers need to choose mentors who will influence professionalism and decrease the gray area for trainees. These areas occur when there is more than one right answer or method, during which people must choose what is most right. People often disagree as to what appropriate behaviors are in given situations. Adherence to a code of ethics does not necessarily ensure competence, but it does help to provide a clear understanding of ethical violations. This understanding also provides a basis for people to determine the impact of potential unethical conduct. Defining the ethical obligations for a profession allows mentors to determine the values associated within the professional culture.
The forensic profession is composed of many disciplines and subfields, all having their own policies, procedures, and goals. In the laboratory, the scientific method is held as the guide for all scientific experiments. Although the term scientific method implies that there is one specific process, the method actually consists of prescribed steps (Bauer, 1994). The steps in forensic science include the use of all potential examinations, the use of many sources of information, the use of error rates and uncertainty, and objective, thorough examinations used to gain information from evidence. Although having only one source of data is a good way to eliminate gray areas, it is not a realistic way to remain unbiased. If evidence points in one direction, it is best to observe sources of information that may contradict and lead in a different direction. The variation may either reinforce or negate the scientists’ results. One of the main dynamics in science is uncertainty. Any high-quality lawyer will lead the triers of fact to believe that uncertainty is negative; however, it is common and expected in science. Uncertainty is an event with unknown probability. In science, uncertainty is a given characteristic of all information that scientists must acknowledge and communicate.
In science, gray areas may occur with evidence that is significant in one region or laboratory but of no interest to another. For example, soil evidence found in Connecticut and traced back to New Mexico is significant because the locations have different soil types. Scientists must then examine how and why the soil from one location ended up in the other location. The same soil evidence that came from New Mexico would not have the significance in a case from New Mexico because the soil is common to the area. In the second case, the soil evidence represents a gray area that does not lead scientists to a specific conclusion: The evidence is neither positive nor negative; it simply does not have a right answer in regard to the case. Gray areas are unavoidable; however, standards are in place to ease the burden of decisions regarding actions or methods that are more right.
Some people truly do not understand why their actions are considered unethical. Personality traits may influence the misinterpretation between right and wrong actions. Dogmatist represents the first type of personality. People with this personality are committed to one answer and will not change their minds. In general, people are committed to an idea and cannot recognize alternatives, which does not allow for adaptable decision-making. People should listen to other people’s perspectives, seek arguments for the opposing side, examine reasons for having alternate positions, and adjust language to be neutral to avoid dogmatism. The next personality type to explore is those who participate in offhand self-justification. These people automatically make excuses or become defensive when questioned. Steps toward prevention of this natural response include personal reminders of how self-defeating the reaction is, awareness of the anger or irritation one might feel, and avoidance of instinctive counterattacks. The final personality type to discuss is relativism or when a person believes that not one single standard is right. People with this type of personality tend to think it’s all relative and that what is right for one person may not be right for another. Although people with this personality type do not usually view their actions as unethical, they need to take accountability for actions based on whatever personal and professional standards they follow. Relativism, more than any other personality type, introduces the likelihood of personal ethics that clash with professional ethics. Unethical decisions occur for a variety of reasons, most of which people are able to rationalize as part of human nature.