Counties and cities could be forced to shoulder the cost of forensic tests under the current budget proposal to save the state as much as $20 million by charging for analysis of everything from fingerprint to DNA evidence.

The proposal would require the Department of Justice (DOJ), which handles some 50,000 pieces of evidence a year, to charge police and sheriff departments across the state for routine tests previously conducted free of charge.

The bill to local governments was scaled back from the $40 million originally estimated to pay for all services, but would still be a hit to departments already reeling from budget cuts, said Elizabeth Howard, legislative representative for California State Association of Counties.

Howard pointed out that the bill contains some hardship provisions for detectives working on a large case that could require extensive CSI-style work.

One such evidence-intensive case was the investigation into the disappearance of Sandra Cantu in Tracy last March. The eight-year-old’s body was found in a suitcase in an irrigation pond. The FBI led the investigation that resulted in the arrest of a neighboring Sunday school teacher.

“In that case, the FBI and DOJ paid for extensive DNA testing through a mutual aid agreement,” said Tracy Police Department Administrative Lieutenant David Sant.

The city most often uses DOJ labs for driving under the influence drug testing. Sant said the city sent the DOJ some 12,500 blood samples and about 15,000 urine samples for drug testing last year.

A letter from the Department of Justice in July 2008 estimated that based on average usage, the city would have to pay an additional $142,000 a year, a little more than the cost of one police officer’s salary with benefits. Sant estimated that would be an eleven-fold increase in current testing expenses.

The testing charges would be on top of the $13,000 already charged by a contractor to extract blood for analysis.

“We would have to do some budgetary scrambling because we have very little in the way of discretionary funds,” Sant said.

Sant warned skimping on training would not be a good answer. The city currently schedules police officers so they can do internal training, including preservation of evidence training, monthly.

“If we lose the ability to do training, that would be horrific,” Sant said.

“The result will be that a lot of lesser crimes will not be solved,” predicted Jim Denney, executive director of the California State Sheriff’s Association.

“Departments will have to prioritize what evidence to send to labs to stay in budget,” Denney said.

When warned of the consequences, Assemblywoman Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa), chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, was quoted as saying “We have had to make many difficult decisions to close our budget gap this year,”

The one upside, Denney said, might be that the backlog of samples waiting to be tested could clear up if less evidence is sent for testing.

“That would not be good for small cities,” said Deanna DeSilva, who represents the Livingston Police Department in the agricultural Central Valley. “The budget is already so tight, we have to get office supply requests approved.”

Howard pointed out that all jurisdictions could be affected. Even large counties with their own laboratory capabilities often turn to the state for help – help that would now come at a price.

Still, DeSilva said, the extra cost would not influence how many tests Livingston Police officers order. They will just have to find other places in the budget to cut – perhaps fewer paper clips.

JT Long can be reached at