A Review of the Ethics Committee Responsibilities and Complaint Process

Source: John Lentini, BS, Ethics Committee Chair

As forensic scientists, we enjoy a great deal of respect from both the public and the court system we serve. To protect that reputation, the Academy has established an Ethics Committee to investigate claims of misconduct by our members. These claims may originate from both AAFS members and non-members, or the Ethics Committee may initiate investigations on its own if it becomes aware of alleged misconduct. The Ethics Committee may also render advisory opinions in terms of the provisions of the Code of Ethics and Conduct if an individual Member or Affiliate requests such a review of their contemplated conduct.

The Ethics Committee consists of seven Fellows who are appointed to three-year terms by the Board of Directors. Members may serve a maximum of two terms.

The AAFS Code of Ethics and Conduct, which all members are required to subscribe to annually, can be found in Article II of the Academy Bylaws. It is reproduced in its entirety below.


SECTION 1 - THE CODE OF ETHICS AND CONDUCT: As a means to promote the highest quality of professional and personal conduct of its members and affiliates, the following constitutes the Code of Ethics and Conduct that is endorsed by all Members and Affiliates of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences:

a. Every Member and Affiliate of the Academy shall refrain from exercising professional or personal conduct adverse to the best interests and objectives of the Academy. The objectives stated in the Preamble to these bylaws shall be to promote professionalism, integrity, and competency in the membership's actions and associated activities; to promote education for and research in the forensic sciences; to encourage the study, improve the practice, elevate the standards, and advance the cause of the forensic sciences; to promote interdisciplinary communications; and to plan, organize, and administer meetings, reports, and other projects for the stimulation and advancement of these and related purposes.

b. No Member or Affiliate of the Academy shall materially misrepresent his or her education, training, experience, area of expertise, or membership status within the Academy.

c. No Member or Affiliate of the Academy shall materially misrepresent data or scientific principles upon which his or her conclusion or professional opinion is based.

d. No Member or Affiliate of the Academy shall issue public statements that appear to represent the position of the Academy without first obtaining specific authority from the Board of Directors.

SECTION 2 - MEMBER AND AFFILIATE LIABILITY: Any Member or Affiliate of the Academy who has violated any of the provisions of the Code of Ethics and Conduct (Article II, Section 1) within the preceding five (5) years may be liable to formal or informal discipline, to include reprimand, censure, suspension, or expulsion by action of the Board of Directors.

SECTION 3 - SANCTIONS: If the Board of Directors finds that a Member or Affiliate has committed a violation of the Code of Ethics and Conduct, the Board may sanction the Member or Affiliate based on the nature of the violation as follows:

a. If the Board finds that a Member or Affiliate has committed a minor violation of the Code of Ethics and Conduct, the Member or Affiliate may be censured with a confidential "Letter of Reprimand" or a nonconfidential "Letter of Censure."

b. If the Board finds that a Member or Affiliate has committed a serious violation of the Code of Ethics and Conduct, the Board may suspend the AAFS membership of the Member or Affiliate for a specific period of time.

c. If the Board finds that a Member or Affiliate has committed an egregious violation of the Code of Ethics and Conduct, the Board may expel the Member or Affiliate from the membership of AAFS.

d. In determining whether a violation of the Code of Ethics and Conduct is "minor," "serious," or "egregious" and appropriate level of sanction to be imposed, the Board of Directors shall consider the following non-exclusive factors:

1. Whether the violation was an isolated incident or a pattern of misconduct;
2. Whether the violation was knowing and intentional;
3. Whether the violation included prevarication, fabrication, deception, or falsification;
4. Whether accused has acknowledged the ethical violation, taken remedial measures, and/or expressed remorse for the conduct;
5. Whether the violation resulted in actual harm or the potential for serious harm to the justice system and/or an individual;
6. Whether the accused has previously been sanctioned for an ethical violation;
7. Whether the violation involved conduct adverse to the best interests and objectives of the Academy.

Note that it is the Board of Directors and not the Ethics Committee that is ultimately responsible for enforcing the Code of Ethics and Conduct. The Ethics Committee serves as a fact-finding body for the Board. The only action that the Ethics Committee can take by itself occurs when we find no violation of the Code of Ethics and Conduct and can dismiss the complaint.

The Ethics Committee has had a busy year so far. By the end of April 2023, we had already received as many complaints as we received in all of 2022. Thankfully, we have not received any additional complaints since then. (We did receive one additional inquiry, but the alleged misconduct occurred more than 30 years ago, so we did not open a file.)

When considering filing an ethical complaint against a fellow AAFS member, it is important to keep several things in mind.

First, we are bound by the Policy and Procedure Manual (§6.5 Ethics Committee Rules and Procedures), which sets two time limitations  on our ability to investigate alleged misconduct: a) the alleged misconduct must have occurred within five (5) years of the date of the complaint; and b) the complainant must have known or should have known of the alleged misconduct within two (2) years of filing the complaint. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that the Respondent (and potential witnesses) may have no recollection of an event that happened five years ago, and no ability to meaningfully respond. These time limits constrain our jurisdiction, particularly if the alleged misconduct took place in an academic setting, where students may be unwilling to report a faculty member while still under their supervision (such complaints may be best handled by the academic institution). We have a duty to provide a Respondent with due process and can best do so within these long-standing time limits.

Second, we are the Ethics Committee, not the Manners Committee. The Academy encourages robust discussions of controversial issues, and sometimes the discourse gets a little out of hand. Complaints about bad manners, however, do not equate to complaints about unethical conduct.

Third, the Ethics Committee needs specificity and documentation. How exactly do you think the Respondent's behavior violated the AAFS Code of Ethics and Conduct? Differences of opinion should be resolved in another forum. 

Finally, consider the gravity of the situation. An individual who is publicly sanctioned by the Board of Directors is likely to have their career, and possibly even their ability to earn a living, negatively impacted. Respondents often do not take such threats to their reputations and livelihoods lightly. Counter-allegations of misconduct and civil lawsuits alleging defamation or libel should be considered. Both have happened in the past.

The Ethics Committee has the authority to dismiss complaints. If we reach the conclusion that an ethical violation has occurred, the Board of Directors decides whether to accept or reject that finding and which sanction(s), if any, are appropriate (see Section 3 SANCTIONS, above). 

If you have a complaint, our Committee is obligated to address it, and I am by no means trying to discourage complaints. I am just trying to give members a realistic view of what to expect.


The views and opinions expressed in the articles contained in the Academy News are those of the identified authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Academy.