When the price of saying ‘no’ is too high why accreditation may give a false sense of security

By Michael J. Nichols

The Michigan State Police Forensic Science Division (MSP FSD) laboratories were recently granted international accreditation by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLAD-LAB). The accreditation came after a gut-wrenching 15 months for the administration of the MSP FSD. The accreditation for the division of the state police expired on April 18, 2011. This is the division on which the prosecutors ask jurors to rely as providing proof beyond a reasonable doubt for a theory of a case.

The accreditation came after public knowledge through media articles (see “Laboratory Accreditation Woes Continue,” Detroit News ). The accreditation also came following an assessment report that including corrective action requests for such things as failing to use calibrated thermometers certified by the National Institute of Standards and Technology to maintain the temperatures in the temperature controlled storage units for controlled substances (see the full assessment report with corrective action requests at

The accreditation also came as the result as a contract between the State of Michigan and ASCLAD-LAB—a contract which obligated the state to pay ASCLAD-LAB $249,700 for accreditation of the MSP FSD’s 8 laboratories (the ASCLAD-LAB contract can be found at the state of Michigan’s website at or

The concern that I have with this contract is what it does not say that the MSP FSD may fail the accreditation process or “exam” if you will. The contract allows the state to
withdraw from the accreditation process. It does not allow the ASCLAD-LAB to ever say “no” to the MSP FSD lab system when it comes to accrediting the system under the new ISO 17025 system. ISO 17025 is a more stringent universe of standards. It requires traceability. It requires the measurement uncertainty to be reported with a measurement analysis.

The consequences of when the authority cannot say “no” because he is beholden to the constituent is self-evident. Can money “buy” approval? Can it prevent a “no” vote?
ASCLAD-LAB is supposed to be an authority. It is supposed to say “no” or “fix it” when a procedure in a laboratory is not satisfactory. When ASCLAD-LAB says “yes” and puts its stamp of approval on a laboratory or laboratory system, that approbation should make everyone feel as if the laboratory that produced an analysis is at least structurally reliable. In other words, the lab’as day-to-day, hour to hour procedures should leave us relying that all sources of variation or “uncertainty” in a measurement or identification are under control.

However, when ASCLAD-LAB signs a contract under which the constituent becomes the customer and the contract represents a lot of money, one wonders if the stamp of approval is meaningful. An example of how money clouds judgment is in the heart of downtown East Lansing. According to coverage in the Lansing State Journal, the city council awarded a contract to a developer to construct multi-unit, high-end lofts right in the middle of the downtown, just a block south of the 54B district court and a block north of the famous “Abbot” entrance to Michigan State University.

Many times I hear the witnesses from the MSP FSD labs testify to juries that the labs are accredited by ASCLAD-LAB as if the accreditation should make us all feel as if the analysis or work product from the lab is reliable, accurate and beyond reproach. Maybe it is: but when the lab has to buy the stamp of approval, the question about what would result from an accreditation process without a contract is burning in my brain.


Mike Nichols is an associate member of the American Academy of Forensic Science (Jurisprudence Section), the American Chemical Society, a graduate of the Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry Course at Axion Labs in Chicago, author of the Michigan “OWI Handbook” by West Publishing, “DUI Mathematics” by West Publishing and he is an adjunct law professor of DUI Law and Practice at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing.