The Massachusetts State Crime Lab Scandal and Potential Lawsuits

Most people are now aware of the scandal involving the state’s drug lab and charges that have been brought against Annie Dookhan,  a former chemist at the lab who is alleged to have fabricated drug testing results in tens of thousands of criminal cases.  But what has gone under the radar is discussion of possible civil lawsuits that could be filed in the wake of that scandal, particularly if Dookhan pleads or is found guilty of the charges.

The two best routes to holding the state liable would be the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act and the federal Civil Rights Act (known to attorneys as Section 1983), which provides remedies to individuals whose constitutional rights have been violated by governmental employees.   Under the MTCA the “public employer” cannot be held responsible for a public employee’s intentional conduct,  but only for negligence,  and there is a $100,000 damage limit.   Thus, suits under the MTCA will need to allege negligent supervision of Dookhan’s work (which has been discussed at length in media reports).    Suits under section 1983 are not limited to negligent conduct,  and while there are few reported cases concerning the fabrication of evidence,   there is case law that stands for the proposition that fabrication of evidence by the state does constitute a deprivation of a person’s constitutional right to a fair trial.

At first blush,  these suits may appear to be a “slam dunk”, particularly if the Commonwealth secures a guilty plea or conviction in the Dookhan criminal case.   But in defending any civil suit,  the Commonwealth will have an opportunity to argue that plaintiffs sustained no damages because they would have been convicted even if Dookhan had not fabricated the evidence.    In many instances these defenses may be difficult to carry out,  since the Commonwealth will undoubtedly agree to vacate convictions and dismiss pending cases due to sheer cost of having to address the scandal generally.    The most promising of the cases will likely be brought by those who were incarcerated for lengthy periods.

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