American justice is supposed to be blind, but it is rarely swift. It can be frustratingly slow.
Just ask those who are on the front lines in the war on drugs in Franklin County. When a law enforcement officer arrests someone suspected of possessing drugs it can take as long as a year before they are ever charged with a crime.
That’s because the suspected drugs have to be sent off to be analyzed at the Missouri Highway Patrol laboratory lab in Jefferson City before local prosecutors will issue charges. Franklin County judges insist on the actual lab results at preliminary hearings.
The state crime lab is backed-up and budget cuts have only exacerbated the delays. It takes some time to confirm that seized contraband is really an illegal drug.
That delay before charges are issued is frustrating to everyone interested in keeping drugs off our streets — especially the public. It’s a frequent complaint we hear from our readers when police bust a meth lab in their neighborhood. Typically the meth makers are taken to jail only to be released a short time later while evidence is shipped off to the lab. Within a matter of days, if not hours, they are back cooking the drug.
Prosecutors say it is not uncommon for a drug defendant to re-offend while waiting for the lab results to come back on an initial charge. They often commit other crimes such as burglaries and stealing to get money to buy more drugs. Often there is another delay as the cases are combined in the interests of judicial economy. Prosecutors say it is a huge problem.
But the delay in filing charges in drug cases may be changing now that police have a new weapon in identifying suspected narcotics. The Franklin County Narcotics Enforcement Unit recently acquired a TruNarc analyzer which is 99.9 percent accurate for identifying various narcotics, including synthetic drugs.
The handheld device, which costs $20,000, was purchased with federal forfeiture funds obtained in a previous drug case. It is currently being used in 28 states and relies on a technology, called Raman spectroscopy, that is already used in many drug labs.
Proponents say the device will help officers quickly discern illicit substances at a time when police are seeing a surge in new, harder-to-identify designer drugs such as the psychoactive powders known as “bath salts.”
Obtaining immediete test results will allow charges to be filed much quicker which means defendants who want to seek treatment in drug court can get help sooner.
This is an important step forward for law enforcement officers, the courts and law abiding citizens who want to see the wheels of justice move quicker.