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The Associated Press

KALISPELL (AP) — Law enforcement agencies that depend on the state crime lab can help ease its tremendous volume with some simple consideration, says Flathead County Sheriff Jim Dupont.

Dupont was recently reappointed to the crime lab advisory board. With about five years’ tenure, he’s the only returning member of a new board selected by Attorney General Mike McGrath.

The crime lab processes evidence, which includes ballistics, DNA, fingerprints, toxicology, and autopsies. Evidence comes from every law enforcement agency in the state.

The board, reduced from 14 members to seven, believes it’s crucial to control the flow of evidence into the lab, Dupont said. Nationally, labs that compromised evidence have jeopardized criminal cases.

And the lab’s volume is unquestionably increasing. Processing complex evidence related to methamphetamine labs has caused a backlog. Requirements to take DNA swabs of every convicted felon will add to the caseload, Dupont said.

The advisory board wants to improve communication between the lab and the agencies that rely on it.

“County attorneys and law enforcement can help,” Dupont said.

For example, if an agency submits a substance for drug analysis, and in the meantime, a suspect confesses or enters into a plea agreement, canceling the analysis can save the lab time, he said.

Flathead County has two fingerprint examiners. They can help with evidence in Columbia Falls and Whitefish cases, he said, and “that takes the burden off the lab. That’s what we want to look at. We can’t rely on the lab to be doing a lot of the things we should be doing.”

He said if he, as coroner, doesn’t see anything suspicious in a death but wants to eliminate drugs or alcohol as a factor, he can indicate to the lab that the evidence doesn’t have a high priority. If there are suspicious circumstances, it helps the lab to know that he considers the evidence a priority.

“The standard rule is, First in, first out,” Dupont said. “But you can’t do that with crime.”

Fingerprints needed to identify a suspect in a crime may take priority over a routine autopsy where nothing seems suspicious, he said.

At one time, it took as long as a year for the Missoula lab to complete some drug analyses, Dupont said.

The lab moved from St. Patrick Hospital to its own building about a year ago.

“It’s a beautiful facility. There’s a DNA lab that’s outstanding,” Dupont said. Everything was designed for security and keeping evidence uncontaminated, he said.

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