Drugs Stolen from Crime Lab in Ripon, Cases in Jeopardy

FRESNO, Calif. The department of justice was tipped off after a police officer in Stockton called the lab to check up on some drug samples that had been sent there.

The amount tested was less than what the officer sent in. And further investigation revealed other cases where meth was missing. Drug cases all over the Valley are in jeopardy.

The California Department of Justice says someone working at the Central Valley Crime Lab in Ripon may have been stealing drugs brought in for testing in criminal drug cases.

Prosecutors launched an investigation after they discovered unexplained weight discrepancies involving methamphetamine. Five counties use the lab ... including Merced.

Sheriff Mark Pazin says every law enforcement agency in Merced County sends evidence to the lab for analysis after they make a drug bust. "And obviously that has been violated and its very disturbing that somebody would do that."

Sheriff Pazin says thousands of drug cases in Merced County are now in jeopardy which may give convicted criminals a chance to go free.

That's exactly what occurred in San Francisco last month ... after a lab technician there admitted to stealing cocaine seized as evidence in thousands of ongoing cases.

That triggered an avalanche of appeals, and if that also happens in Merced County, it would create a legal nightmare.

"The defense attorneys are now going to have an avenue for an appeals process that's basically going to overwhelm in an already overwhelmed court system," said Sheriff Pazin.

Merced County Public Defender, Eric Dumars welcomes the investigation ... which will encompass cases dating back to 2006. "If protocols aren't being followed and the public can't trust that the department of justice isn't testing things accurately and appropriately, then juries aren't going to convict and they shouldn't."

Dumars estimates Merced County will have 5,000 cases up for review. "You have no idea how that would have affected a jury at a trial or how that would have affected the perception of evidence when people are awaiting trial so it's very serious."

The Central Valley Crime Lab employee is on paid administrative leave and has not been identified.

Other counties are still trying to figure how many cases are involved, but Stanislaus County already estimates between four and 5,000 of its cases could be affected.

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