North Dakota's attorney general on Thursday urged state lawmakers to place the independent State Crime Lab under the state crime bureau's jurisdiction, but opponents say that could cast doubt on the credibility of evidence the lab processes.
Senate Bill 2131 deletes a single line from the North Dakota Century Code: “The state crime laboratory must be administratively separated from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation.”
BCI is an agency within the Attorney General's Office tasked with investigating and prosecuting criminal cases. Attorney General Drew Wrigley told the Senate State and Local Government Committee that having the ability to move the lab to BCI oversight would streamline the two agencies into one. It’s a configuration used in more than 40 states and would help solve “a years-in-the-making problem,” Wrigley said.
Included in that problem are a backlog of rape test kits, the lack of firearms and latent fingerprint testing -- two services that were dropped five years ago -- and the slow flow of communication between the lab and state law enforcement agencies.
“What remains untouched by this bill, and would always remain untouched, is the science,” Wrigley said. “The science must be objective. The lab must be a certified lab; it has to have certified personnel.”
Keith Findley, president of the Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences nonprofit and professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Law, referenced a 2009 study and report by the National Academy of Sciences. It said scientific and medical assessment conducted in forensic investigations “should be independent of law enforcement efforts either to prosecute criminal suspects or even to determine whether a criminal act has indeed been committed.”
Analysts in a lab that is not independent are exposed to “cognitive biases and distortions” that can lead an analyst “to unwittingly interpret data in skewed ways,” the study said.
Justin Vinje, a Bismarck attorney who does a considerable amount of criminal defense work, said the bill is a step backward from a change to an independent lab made in 2003 by then-Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. It would subject the crime lab’s work to unnecessary criticism and do nothing to fix what Vinje called the core issue -- funding.
“This bill is going to make it harder for prosecutors to prove their cases in court, it will cast doubt upon criminal convictions decades after the trial, and it’s going to cost every single one of us tax dollars and time dealing with a completely avoidable problem,” Vinje said.
Placing the lab under BCI oversight makes it part of that office, according to Vinje.
“Suddenly you have two entities that really should be separate for the purity of the science, they’re working together,” he said. “It’s going to cause problems either real or perceived, and that does no credit to our justice system.”
Cass County Sheriff Jesse Jahner said putting the lab under BCI would put it “back on track.” His office has at times waited six months for DNA and fingerprint evidence. When law enforcement waits for a suspect to be identified that person can be victimizing others, Jahner said. It’s “extremely embarrassing” to tell victims that the state’s lab may not be able to process evidence collected at a crime scene, he said.
“If we do not address the crime lab or get a handle on this issue, we are soon going to be in a position where we can no longer investigate criminal activity,” Jahner said.
Wrigley said he understands some might say the lab being under BCI could lead to comments that the lab will say “whatever BCI wants them to say.”
“People watch too many movies,” he said.
If an intentional human flaw were to be placed into evidence during investigation, it wouldn’t be in a certified lab in tests done by certified personnel, the attorney general said.
The committee didn't immediately act on the bill.
Not all careers in law enforcement require a badge and a gun. Take the scientists at the Bellevue Police Department Crime Lab where they use s…
Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or Travis.Svihovec@bismarcktribune.com
WASHINGTON — Attorney General Merrick Garland on Thursday appointed a special counsel to investigate the presence of classified documents found at President Joe Biden's home in Wilmington, Delaware, and at an unsecured office in Washington dating from his time as vice president.
Robert Hur, a onetime U.S. attorney appointed by former President Donald Trump, will lead the investigation and plans to begin his work soon. His appointment marks the second time in a few months that Garland has appointed a special counsel. Both investigations, including one involving Trump, relate to the handling of classified information.
Garland's decision caps a tumultuous week at the White House, where Biden and his team opened the year hoping to celebrate stronger economic news ahead of launching an expected reelection campaign. But the administration faced new challenges Monday, when it acknowledged that sensitive documents were found at the office of Biden's former institute in Washington. The situation intensified by Thursday morning, when Biden's attorney acknowledged that an additional classified document was found at a room in his Wilmington home — later revealed by Biden to be his personal library — along with other documents found in his garage.
The attorney general revealed that Biden's lawyers informed the Justice Department of the latest discovery at the president's home on Thursday morning, after FBI agents first retrieved documents from the garage in December.
Biden told reporters at the White House that he was "cooperating fully and completely" with the Justice Department's investigation.
"We have cooperated closely with the Justice Department throughout its review, and we will continue that cooperation with the special counsel," said Richard Sauber, a lawyer for the president. "We are confident that a thorough review will show that these documents were inadvertently misplaced, and the president and his lawyers acted promptly upon discovery of this mistake."
Garland said the "extraordinary circumstances" of the matter required Hur's appointment, adding that the special counsel is authorized to investigate whether any person or entity violated the law. Federal law requires strict handling procedures for classified information, and official records from Biden's time as vice president are considered government property under the Presidential Records Act.
"I will conduct the assigned investigation with fair, impartial and dispassionate judgment," Hur said in a statement. "I intend to follow the facts swiftly and thoroughly, without fear or favor and will honor the trust placed in me to perform this service."
While Garland said the Justice Department received timely notifications from Biden's personal attorneys after each set of classified documents identified, the White House provided delayed and incomplete notification to the American public about the discoveries.
Biden's personal attorneys found the first set of classified and official documents on Nov. 2 in a locked closet as they cleared out his office at the Penn Biden Center in Washington, where he worked after he left the vice presidency in 2017 until he launched his presidential campaign in 2019. The attorneys notified the National Archives and Records Administration, which retrieved the documents the next day and referred the matter to the Justice Department.
Sauber said Biden's attorneys then underwent a search of other locations where documents could have been transferred after Biden left the vice presidency, including his homes in Wilmington and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Garland said that on Dec. 20, the Justice Department was informed that classified documents and official records were located in Biden's Wilmington garage, near his Corvette, and FBI agents took custody of them shortly thereafter.
A search on Wednesday evening turned up the most recently discovered classified document in Biden's personal library at his home, and the Justice Department was notified Thursday, Garland revealed.
The White House only confirmed the discovery of the Penn Biden Center documents in response to news inquiries Monday, and remained silent on the subsequent search of Biden's homes and the discovery of the garage tranche until Thursday morning.
The Justice Department has spent months looking into the retention by Donald Trump of more than 300 documents with classification markings found at the former president's Florida estate. Though the situations are factually and legally different, the discovery of classified documents at locations tied to Biden would almost certainly complicate any prosecution that the department might bring against Trump.
New House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, said of the latest news, "I think Congress has to investigate this."
The top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee requested that intelligence agencies conduct a "damage assessment" of potentially classified documents. Ohio Rep. Mike Turner on Thursday also requested briefings from Garland and the director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, on their reviews by Jan. 26.
WASHINGTON — Rising U.S. consumer prices moderated again last month, bolstering hopes that inflation's grip on the economy will continue to ease this year and possibly require less drastic action by the Federal Reserve to control it.
Inflation declined to 6.5% in December compared with a year earlier, the government said Thursday. It was the sixth straight year-over-year monthly slowdown, down from 7.1% in November. On a monthly basis, prices slipped 0.1% from November to December, the first such drop since May 2020.
The softer readings add to growing signs that the worst inflation bout in four decades is steadily waning. Gas prices, which have tumbled, are likely to keep lowering overall inflation in the coming months. Supply chain snarls have largely unraveled. That's helping reduce the cost of goods ranging from cars and shoes to furniture and sporting goods.
"This is the starting point for much better inflation rates, which should bolster consumer and business confidence," said Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at tax consultants RSM.
December's lower inflation reading makes it likelier that the Fed will slow its interest rate hikes in the coming months. The Fed may raise its benchmark rate by just a quarter-point at its next meeting, which ends Feb. 1, after a half-point increase in December and four three-quarter-point hikes before that.
Fed officials signaled they intend to boost their key rate above 5% — a move that would likely keep mortgage rates high, along with the costs of auto loans and business borrowing. The Fed's higher rates are intended to slow spending, cool the economy and curb inflation.
But if inflation continues to ease, the Fed could suspend its rate hikes after that, some economists say, or implement just one additional hike in March and then pause.
"If actual inflation is trending downward, the Fed can take more comfort that it's landed the economy in a good place," said Daleep Singh, chief global economist at PGIM Fixed Income and a former Fed staffer. Singh expects the Fed to raise its benchmark rate by a quarter-point at each of its next two meetings and then stop with its key rate just below 5%.
In remarks Thursday morning, President Joe Biden suggested that the "data is clear" that U.S. inflation is dropping. "It's coming down in America month after month, giving families some real breathing room," he said.
Inflation also has been dropping, though to a lesser degree, in Europe and in the United Kingdom. Annual inflation in the 19 countries that use the euro currency fell for the second straight month in December but still hit a painful 9.2%. That was down from November's 10.1% but still higher than normal.
While annual inflation in the U.K. eased to 10.7% in November from 11.1% a month earlier, it's still stuck near a 40-year high, with food and energy prices squeezing consumers.
Central banks in Europe and the U.K. are still raising interest rates but have slowed their pace.
Even as inflation gradually slows, it remains a painful reality for many Americans.
Excluding volatile food and energy costs, so-called core prices rose 5.7% in December from a year earlier, slower than the 6% in November. From November to December, core prices increased just 0.3%, after rising 0.2% in November. In the past three months, core inflation has slowed to an annual rate of just 3.1%.
Grocery prices rose 0.2% from November to December, the smallest such increase in nearly two years. Still, those prices are up 11.8% from a year ago.
Behind much of the decline in overall inflation are falling gas prices. The national average price of a gallon of gas has sunk from a $5 in June to $3.27 as of Wednesday, according to AAA.
Also contributing to the slowdown are used car prices, which fell for a sixth straight month in December. New car prices declined, too. The cost of airline tickets also dropped.
Still, for most Americans, the Fed's rate hikes have made auto loans much more expensive.
Housing costs are still surging, with apartment rental costs jumping 0.8% from November to December and 8.3% compared with a year earlier. The year-over-year increase was the fastest in four decades.
After two straight weekly increases, the average long-term U.S. mortgage rate came back down again this week but remains a significant hurdle for many prospective homebuyers.
Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac reported Thursday that the average on the benchmark 30-year rate fell to 6.33% from 6.48% last week. A year ago the average rate was 3.45%.
The average long-term rate reached a two-decade high of 7.08% in the fall.
U.S. applications for unemployment benefits fell to their lowest level in 15 weeks as the job market continues to show resiliency.
The number of Americans applying for jobless aid for the week ending Jan. 7 fell to 205,000, from 206,000 the week before, the Labor Department said Thursday. Last week's number was revised up by 2,000 to 206,000.
The four-week moving average of claims, which softens some of the week-to-week volatility, fell by 1,750 to 212,500.
Jobless claims are generally viewed as a proxy for layoffs, which have been relatively low since the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out millions of jobs in 2020.