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With the opening of the new Billings forensic crime lab, Eastern Montana can expect faster turn-around times when it comes to drug evidence identification in smaller drug cases, officials said Thursday.

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, Montana Crime Lab Administrative Director Phil Kinsey and Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito announced the crime lab's grand opening at Billings Clinic on Thursday afternoon. 

The lab, which was anticipated to open in January, has already begun processing some evidence, Kinsey said. Fox congratulated both the state and local law enforcement agencies in their work to serve justice better and quicker in Montana. He thanked legislators for making the lab a priority and for pushing for its inception.

Kinsey said the new lab is projected to process about 700 cases a year and will serve 27 Eastern Montana counties. A majority of those cases will come from Yellowstone County, which sent more than 500 cases to the Missoula crime lab last year. 

The new lab will only test and identify drugs. Cases that have drugs in addition to other types of evidence will continue to be processed at the Missoula Crime Lab, which is much larger. The full crime lab in Missoula will continue to process the majority of forensic testing, including breath alcohol; firearms and tool marks; latent prints and impressions; pathology; serology; DNA; toxicology; and trace evidence. 

The request for a second crime lab was made by Twito after the 2014 election, when the county attorney told Reps. Dale Mortensen, R-Billings, and Kelly McCarthy, D-Billings the one thing he really needed was a lab. Twito's request was echoed by other Eastern Montana county attorneys, who said the spike of drug-related cases coming through their offices could be dealt with faster if the prosecutors had access to a closer crime lab. 

"We're on track to see the same number of possession cases as last year, maybe more," Twito said Thursday. 

With drug possession charges making up a third of the criminal cases filed in 2015, Twito said speeding up the case will help to get drug users into treatment programs quicker. At least 20 percent of the Yellowstone County jail population was arrested on some type of drug charge, not including those incarcerated for either a supervision or probation violation, according to the detention facility’s jail roster. 

Felony drug possession charges have increased in Yellowstone County from 171 in 2011, to at least 540 last year, with most not even being busts for large amounts of drugs. One third of the drug cases sent from Yellowstone County for analysis in 2015 were for "trace" or what's called "no weight" amounts. Drug evidence cases being processed at the lab has increased from 1,960 in 2008 to over 2,500 in 2015. 

Sending evidence from Eastern Montana and back for those cases or sending an evidence technician to testify somewhere in Eastern Montana takes too much time. The Eastern Montana Crime Lab will help with many backlogged cases, Kinsey said. 

The Billings lab will have three employees — an analyst who moved from Missoula, a chemist from North Carolina, who completed her training at the Missoula Lab on Thursday, and evidence technician Gaye Gauthier, a former Billings Police detective. The lab will also have three forensic instruments, valued at more than $120,000 each.

Within the 1,553-square-foot space, lab evidence will be stored in a room secured by proximity cards. The cards will record who enters the evidence locker and when they enter. This information will also be relayed to the Missoula crime lab. The Missoula lab, a 30,000-square-foot facility, will be able to observe the inside of the Billings lab using four security cameras, some placed in the evidence lab and some in the main entrance of the lab. 

The walls of the new lab were also built up to prevent anyone accessing the evidence through a false ceiling, Kinsey said. Security doors and locks and motion detectors were also added. Evidence will only be stored at the lab while it is being analyzed. It will be sent back to the requesting agency as soon as it is processed, Kinsey said. 

Kinsey did not go into specifics regarding security breaches at the Missoula crime lab, where former Missoula police officer Steve Brester is being investigated for stealing drug evidence from the lab when he was employed as an evidence technician. Charges have still not been filed against Brester, despite the breach affecting more than 50 cases in Montana, 15 of which were in Yellowstone County. It is alleged Brester stole drug evidence for over 9 months while employed with the lab. 

The breach has also prompted defense attorneys in Yellowstone County to accuse prosecutors of hiding information regarding the ongoing investigation at the Montana State Crime Lab. 

Jim Duncan, president of the Billings Clinic Foundation, said the hospital was able to accommodate the security needs of the lab just as it does all areas of its campus. Duncan said the hospital has different security levels throughout the separate wings depending on what type of work is being done there. The forensic lab will be no different, he said. 

The state is leasing the space from Billings Clinic in what used to hold the Deaconess Research Institute, at 1045 N. 30th St. Medical director of the Billings Clinic Cancer Center, Randall Gibb said research for the clinic was already being moved to other areas of the hospital when the state approached the hospital about the space in August. 

The lease on the space will cost the state $45,720 a year and will last until June 30, 2019. 

The Legislature authorized the DOJ to spend as much as $310,000 to secure a two-year lease and $476,000 to pay employees, with anything left over going into the DOJ's general fund. The money wasn't budgeted during the Legislature and will come out of the DOJ's budget, which it will ask the 2017 Legislature to supplement.

An additional $140,000 was spent to update the space, including the cost of design fees, construction documents and programming, construction costs and specialty systems such as the security systems.

The deputy state medical examiner is also leasing space in Billings at St. Vincent's Healthcare. Kinsey said the state is open to continuing to expand forensic services in Billings, but the Missoula Crime Lab will remain the forensic science hub in the state.