Familiarity with Codes of Ethics

Forensic scientists have a responsibility to become familiar with the written codes that govern scientific behavior. Scientists should understand how to apply the codes and should know how to reason beyond the explicit language. As of now, criminalist-specific codes of ethics do not exist; they are typically general statements. In fact, technically, there is no standardized code of ethics for scientists in general. Scientists normally apply a code of ethics set by the institutions that employ them, funding agencies, or professional associations; however, what if there are differences between those codes? Forensic scientists have a responsibility to understand the various codes to which they are held within their discipline, agency, and profession.

The Education, Ethics, and Terminology Inter-Agency Working Group of the National Science and Technology Council’s Subcommittee on Forensic Science conducted research on existing professional codes of ethics for forensic science organizations. The four main components include professional competency, clear and objective testimony, avoiding conflicts of interest, and avoiding bias. To increase public confidence and quality within the field, following the National Code of Professional Responsibility for Forensic Science and Forensic Medicine Service Providers is recommended. The specific recommendations include the following (National Commission on Forensic Science):

  • 1. Accurately represent his or her education, training, experience, and areas of expertise.
  • 2. Pursue professional competency through training, proficiency testing, certification, and presentation and publication of research findings.
  • 3. Commit to continuous learning in the forensic disciplines and stay abreast of new findings, equipment, and techniques.
  • 4. Promote validation and incorporation of new technologies, guarding against the use of nonvalid methods in casework and the misapplication of validated methods.
  • 5. Avoid tampering, adulteration, loss, or unnecessary consumption of evidentiary materials.
  • 6. Avoid participation in any case where there are personal, financial, employment related, or other conflicts of interest.
  • 7. Conduct full, fair, and unbiased examinations, leading to independent, impartial, and objective opinions and conclusions.
  • 8. Make and retain full, contemporaneous, clear, and accurate written records of all examinations and tests conducted, and conclusions drawn, in sufficient detail to allow meaningful review and assessment by an independent person competent in the field.
  • 9. Base conclusions on generally accepted procedures supported by sufficient data, standards, and controls, not on political pressure or other outside influence.
  • 10. Do not render conclusions that are outside one’s expertise.
  • 11. Prepare reports in unambiguous terms, clearly distinguishing data from interpretations and opinions, and disclosing all known associated limitations that prevent invalid inferences or mislead the judge or jury.
  • 12. Do not alter reports or other records, or withhold information from reports for strategic or tactical litigation advantage.
  • 13. Present accurate and complete data in reports, oral and written presentations, and testimony based on good scientific practices and validated methods.
  • 14. Communicate honestly and fully, once a report is issued, with all parties (investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and other expert witnesses), unless prohibited by law.
  • 15. Document and notify management or quality assurance personnel of adverse events, such as an unintended mistake or a breach of ethical, legal, scientific standards, or questionable conduct.
  • 16. Ensure reporting, through proper management channels, to all impacted scientific and legal parties of any adverse event that affects a previously issued report or testimony.

As you can see, codes of ethics generally contain provisions that fall into one of the following four areas:

  • 1. The obligations to follow a scientific method in performing examinations and formulating conclusions
  • 2. The requirements concerning the impartial interpretation and presentation of laboratory results
  • 3. The behavior concerning courtroom demeanor and delivery of expert testimony
  • 4. The obligations to the profession as a whole and maintenance of one’s own professional skills (Peterson and Murdock, 1989)

These provisions are the basis of ethical behavior in forensic science. No code of ethics could possibly deal with all of the intricate details of real situations; they merely serve as a guide (Lucas, 2014).

The codes that follow are the most widely used in the United States Forensic Science Professional Organizations today. To see discipline- focused and regional professional organizations codes of ethics, please see Appendices A through D.

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