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CSI Flagler: Sheriff Launches Crime Lab and Inks $75,000 Deal With Private DNA Lab

| October 14, 2013

Laura Pazarena will be the nucleus of the Flagler County Sheriff's Crime Scene Investigation unit. (© FlaglerLive)

Laura Pazarena will be the nucleus of the Flagler County Sheriff’s Crime Scene Investigation unit. (© FlaglerLive)

Undersheriff Rick Staly was blunt. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Crime Scene Investigation labs may not be around forever. Last December when Gov. Rick Scott asked government agencies to provide budget cuts he could act on, FDLE’s $4 million proposal included eliminating the state police agency’s mobile crime labs, which responded to 424 crime scenes in in 47 counties in 2011, including several cases in Flagler County in the last two years. FDLE is also considering shutting down some of its permanent labs.

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“At some point it’s going to end, so now is the time we start doing our own CSI with a true CSI unit, properly trained,” Staly said Monday.

The Flagler County Sheriff is already a good distance of the way there. In August it hired Laura Pazarena, a 31-year-old former crime scene investigator in Washington, D.C., whose stints included collecting DNA samples from roadside bombs in Afghanistan when she worked for Ideal Innovations, a Pentagon contractor, in that war theater for two years. She is a civilian employee for the sheriff’s office, at a salary of just over $37,000 a year (Pazarena’s position was made possible by reducing the Sheriff’s Office’s accreditation office to a single individual), and is the nucleus of what Staly said may become and indispensable part of local law enforcement investigative operations. “At some point FDLE is going to say, we’re not responding, and we need to be prepared for that. That’s why it’s here,” Staly said. (Pazarena will report to Steve Cole, who heads the Sheriff’s Office’s investigative division.)

The Sheriff’s Office invested $35,000 in a van and equipment, essentially Pazarena’s lab. And it has just sealed a $75,000 one-year deal with DNA Labs International, a Deerfield Beach-based private lab that will provide DNA tests exclusively in burglaries and property crimes. Testing is very expensive, can be very slow, and at times unattainable: because the FDLE’s crime labs have a limited budget, they focus on violent crimes–with homicides, attempted murders and rapes among their priorities–and will continue to do so for the Flagler Sheriff’s Office.

“FDLE simply can’t process the volume and they can’t concentrate on the burglaries,” says Christine Harris, director of business development for DNA Labs. By contracting with the private lab, the Sheriff’s Office will have a relatively swift way of also focusing on a major area of concern locally–property crimes–and doing so with DNA testing relatively fast: the typical turn-around time will be about four weeks between submission of evidence and a written report.

Deputies, of course, won’t be able to send for testing without going through rigorous steps first: each test costs roughly $200 (for starters), though the costs can be higher, and add up fast, on a single case involving a lot of evidence. The new contract with the sheriff equates to an allowance of around 400 DNA tests, Harris said, though for the Sheriff’s Office, much investigative work continue to be performed through FDLE.

Monday afternoon, Harris was at the Sheriff’s Office, providing some training to almost two dozen detectives and other sheriff’s personnel–among them Pazarena–on becoming conversant with the techniques of DNA collection. (The Sheriff’s Office invited members of the media to sit in on the training session.)

The session sought to dispel common misconceptions about DNA. Though it’s more reliable than fingerprints, and the likelihood of a DNA match applying to two people is so remote as to make it virtually impossible, securing a valid DNA sample and matching it to a suspect can itself be very difficult.

“There’s never a guarantee that we’re going to be able to get you a DNA profile,” Harris said. DNA samples can be very easily contaminated, stored improperly, too degraded by the time they’re found, if it’s found. “We don’t have a magic wand in our lab, you don’t have a magic wand at the scene, sometimes it’s just not there,” she said. And as far as DNA left at property crime scenes, it’s the much more elusive “touch” kind–the kind that is left behind by a suspect turning a door knob or drinking from a bottle or holding a television that somehow is left behind.

Collecting that sort of DNA takes patience and smarts, Harris said, down to the need to swab the given surface not for a few seconds,but for a couple of minutes. And going back and doing it again. Burglars don’t leave behind the traditionally reliable DNA samples (blood or semen) but they can leave behind saliva or sweat. So do investigators, Harris said, which requires them to approach a crime scene with extreme care not to contaminate it by so much as talking: that projects DNA samples that can ruin a suspect’s samples. “Touch” DNA samples account for 89 percent of all DNA evidence collected, according to one survey conducted by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Forensic Biology Unit, based on 1,286 property crime cases it outsourced to a private lab from 2009 to 2011. Most of the rest of the samples were from saliva.

“We think it’s important to bring the technology of the 21st century into the agency, so that’s why we’re doing the touch DNA,” Staly said. (Curiously, the emblem on Pazarena’s mobile CSI unit remains two standards of the pre-DNA age: the fingerprint and the magnifying glass.)

The Flagler Sheriff’s Office’s venture into broader DNA testing does not, for now, cross civil liberties boundaries: the DNA is collected only at crime scenes. All DNA results will be entered into DNA Labs’ growing database (which includes databases from some 140 police agencies, more than 100 of them in Florida), and samples that meet the FDLE’s standards may be conveyed to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System. But while all convicted felons are required to provide DNA samples, others may do so only with their consent, as DNA collection is still considered a search under Florida law.

That could change: Florida could join 28 states that routinely allow police to collect DNA samples from people merely arrested and suspected of crimes, but not yet convicted. It’s a controversial practice civil liberties advocates have long opposed. But in a divided 5-4 opinion just last spring, the United States Supreme Court ruled the practice legal, saying (in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion) that cheek-swabbing is not that intrusive, so it doesn;t rate under the 4th Amendment’s protections.

Today’s training session also leaves unclear another gray area. Since property crimes are by definition committed in violation of individuals’ property rights–in homes, in cars, in offices–numerous DNA samples will be collected and databased that will belong to law-abiding citizens, rather than to suspects.

13 Responses for “CSI Flagler: Sheriff Launches Crime Lab and Inks $75,000 Deal With Private DNA Lab”

  1. Marissa says:

    The swabbing of someone’s inner mouth is not intrusive. I guess we’re all suspect when it comes to proving innocence and for that reason civil liberties are waning more and more in this country. Why?

  2. really says:

    he just fired three LT’s but we now have a CSI unit?? how many times has she been called out since August?? i bet ya slim to none…. AWESOME waste of money

  3. Anon says:

    Finally. Now Flagler County is CSI! About time, and long overdue. This will be money well spent.

  4. RWBNOMORE says:

    Go stick your “swabs” in your eye……..Time to leave America and find land where people can live in FREEDOM from INVASION !!!!

  5. Enlightened says:

    Now I understand why I got fired. It was always about the money. Thanks a lot. You couldn’t even fire me face to face. Coward!

  6. HJ says:

    Manfre strikes again !!
    Wow he fires key personnel left and right and people who have dedicated many years of service to the citizens of Flagler County and then he creates all these unnecessary jobs and says he is saving money…REALLY ????
    Wake up people ….. What a joke !!!

    • Mommie2 says:

      Oh HJ . you hit the mark right on!!!! This man needs to be stopped in his tracks, and given a realty check. Make him see first hand what he has caused among these family’s . He is playing with people’s lives here. How does he sleep at night, it doesn’t effect the person he fired only. These men and woman have family’s that rely on them..

  7. Ray Thorne says:

    So this call out position earns a higher salary than a deputy?

  8. Soccer mom says:

    Manfre is a joke. Wasting more money. He talks about saving the citizens so much money when all he does is spend so much money on non sense stuff. Firing and demoting officers like nothing to save money. What about the PR firm?? More wasted money. Traveling to Virginia in his police vehicle on tax payers dime…he doesn’t care how much he spends. Manfre is not above the law. He should abide with the law like we all do. Stop changing the law to make yourself look good. Stop wasting money and stop acting like you are God Almighty because you are not.

  9. Flaglerresident says:

    Well, having your home turned upside down is not exactly a really good feeling, and when you have the agency investigating the burglary state they don’t have the man power to investigate or prevent these, then the people leading this agency with this mentality should be fired! You are doing an injustice to the community than justice and sucking money from the system that could be spent on other valuable resources.

    I am not for anyone losing their jobs, and I believe in loyalty towards long term employees, but sometimes these employees can create a cancer in morale and reassignment is not an option. I do not know the specifics of enlightened’s circumstances or anyone else’s for that matter, but I do know that change has to occur or the City of Palm Coast needs a professional police department because crime has far exceeded the amount of deputies being provided by the county, and the criminals are obviously aware of this especially when the deputies tell people such.

  10. HJ says:

    We’ll see what Manfres fans say… When the lawsuits start rolling in for all the tricks he has up his sleeve, and the taxpayers are stuck with the bills…..oh that’s right , he is a lawyer who thinks he is above the law, and having to answer for any of his poor decisions !!!
    And heaven help anyone who gets in his way….. Like all the dedicated professionals he fired simply because he didn’t like them for whatever reason…..what a pathetic man you are !
    Just remember God don’t like ugly …….

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