SEBRING - Questions over prescription drug evidence handling in a state crime lab in Pensacola could affect some Highlands County cases, authorities said.
But since the cases in question involve prescription drugs, Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton said she expects that an investigation would show few, if any, cases here are affected.
Gerald Bailey, Florida Department of Law Enforcement commissioner, said those questions came about after Escambia County Sheriff's Office reported missing evidence, according to a transcript of the press conference released by the department.
The same lab chemist processed all those cases, Bailey said.
"We have identified nearly 2,600 cases (spanning 35 counties) that this chemist processed.... from 2006 to the present day," he said. "So far we have identified several dozen evidence submissions where prescriptions drugs were substituted with over-the-counter medications. As you know , this could impact hundreds of drug cases across Florida."
Gretl Plessinger, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said Highlands County was one of the 35 counties.
In Highlands County, only 2006 and 2007 cases would potentially be affected, said Nell Hays, Highlands County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman.
Benton said her understanding is that all cases after that went to the lab in Fort Myers. She said during that time period Highlands County handled far fewer prescription drug cases than now.
FDLE doesn't know when it will be determined if cases in Highlands County have been affected, Plessinger said.
"We don't really have a time frame for this," she said, adding the department has never been faced with such an extensive review of cases.
The department will send teams of experts to 80 law enforcement agencies to review evidence in cases involving the chemist at the Pensacola lab, she said.
Some of the evidence may have to be tested to find out if it's the original evidence submitted to the lab, she said.
"In some cases we may be able to tell specifically just by looking at the evidence," she said.
Plessinger said in the normal chain of events the sheriff's office or police department collects the evidence and sends it to a lab for testing. After the lab tests the evidence, it's sent back to the law enforcement agency.
That evidence from a case in Highlands County would go to the Pensacola lab is not unusual, she said.
"Oftentimes the cases will stay within the region (where they originate)," she said. "Sometimes, because of the workload, cases will go (to a lab in a) different region."
Plessinger said the state has seven labs. Not all of those labs, however, conduct every type of test, so some evidence may be sent to a lab in a different region that performs that type of test, she said.