WASHINGTON — The Defense Department this week temporarily suspended all troop dismissals related to drug and alcohol misuse because of concerns over laboratory testing procedures, an unusual move that could have lingering legal repercussions.
Pentagon officials said the two-day halt did not significantly disrupt any discharge proceedings and is not related to specific problems with any individual case. They said no evidence has been found to suggest past prosecutions could be thrown out because of laboratory contamination problems.
But outside legal experts say even the short pause could have dramatic legal repercussions in months to come.
“This definitely raises doubt in the system,” said Greg Rinckey, founding partner of the Tully Rinckey law firm, which specializes in military case law. “There are a lot of defenses that can be raised now that call into question all of the drug testing.”
On Monday, officials from the Department of Defense General Counsel Office directed that all courts-martial and administrative separation boards based on the wrongful use of a controlled substance be suspended immediately, pending a review of military laboratory procedures.
At issue was a self-directed study by the Air Force Drug Testing Laboratory last month which found possible contamination issues with urine samples shipped to the site. Jostling during transit caused some leaking in some of the containers, creating “wet” samples that showed signs of cross-contamination and corruption of potential evidence.
As a result, acting General Counsel William Castle directed service authorities to halt all separations related to drug offenses on Monday and Tuesday “to ensure they are not a part of a current situation with the drug lab testing procedures.” Department legal officials alerted military defense and prosecution counsels to the findings as well.
Deputy Director of Defense Press Operations Tom Crosson called the halt in dismissal cases “an abundance of caution” by the department.
“The review revealed that under extreme circumstances urine specimens could leak during shipping from the testing site to the laboratory,” he said. “At this time, we have no indication that any service member’s sample was affected.”
Service officials have since resumed the prosecutions.
Rinckey said he has seen individual cases where sample contamination has been raised as a possible defense, but never a full department halt due to concerns. He called it a “Pandora’s box” if researchers go back and find more examples of urine samples leaking during transit to testing sites.
Actually overturning past drug and alcohol abuse dismissals still appears to be a significant legal hurdle, he said, but “on a case-by-case basis, this could be something that prompts more reviews.”
Military prosecutions due to excessive drinking or illicit drug use often result in other-than-honorable discharges, which can disqualify individuals from a host of veterans benefits.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.