Testimony further erodes confidence in county drug tests

Published On: Aug 30 2012 03:56:37 PM CDT   Updated On: Aug 24 2012 10:30:18 PM CDT
HOUSTON -

A second round of testimony in a downtown courtroom further called into question the validity of drug tests administered by the Harris County Community Supervision and Corrections Department, also known as the probation department. The hearing before Judge Denise Collins is raising troubling questions about how the department handles evidence and tracks the results of drug tests.

Perhaps the most stunning testimony came from Richard Youst. Last year, Youst pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated. Since this was Youst's first and only criminal offense, he was sentenced to twelve months of probation. Part of the requirements of Youst's probation was that he submit to random drug tests. Youst testified one month before his probation was set to end that he was informed his urine tested positive for cocaine.

"I've never done drugs in my life and I never will," Youst said following the conclusion of testimony.

Youst said no one believed him when he argued there must had been a mistake with the test result. Youst said his probation was revoked and he was ordered to spend ten days in the Harris County jail.

"It's been really tough," Youst said. "They don't know how hard it was, all the pain and suffering."

Youst said being sent to jail triggered even more hardships in his life.

"When I got locked up, I lost my license, I lost my job, I lost everything. And it's so hard to get a job these days without a valid ID," said Youst.

However, court testimony revealed Youst was telling the truth; his urine was clean.

"This is worst-case scenario," said attorney Lisa Andrews, who called Youst to testify as a witness in this hearing.

Andrews spent Thursday and Friday calling several witnesses for this hearing. Andrews said she discovered emails during her investigation that showed the department realized it made a mistake in Youst's case. Andrews said a clerical error caused someone else's urine sample to be linked to Youst's name. However, Andrews said no one in the department ever reported the mistake to the judge who ordered Youst's probation to be revoked, the prosecutors handling the case or Youst himself.

"They should have immediately notified the judge of the court, they should have notified the District Attorney's Office who filed the motion to revoke his probation," said Andrews. "They took it upon themselves to tell no one and decide what should happen to him. They decided to be judge and jury of the whole situation because they decided they didn't want anyone to find out how bad and how extensive the problems were."

Youst said he did not hear about the mistake until he received a call from Andrews' office.

The mistake in Youst's case was revealed when probation officer Donald Martin was questioned under oath. Martin told the court he initially helped create the database the department uses to track the results of drug tests and oversaw the urine testing program. Martin testified he warned his superiors, including the head of the department Paul Becker, about serious problems with the database used to track test results.

"It's a tracking system that doesn't track what it's supposed to," Martin told the court. "It's not set up correctly."

Martin specifically testified there are not nearly enough checks and balances to ensure that data entry mistakes are caught and corrected quickly. Martin said he was told the system did not have "enough memory" to implement the changes he felt were needed to safeguard against errors.

"I've seen an email saying the (urine analysis) wasn't a priority," Martin told the court. "That's how our administration was looking at the system; it wasn't a priority."

Martin said he was also trying to implement standardized policies and procedures for administering drug tests and the handling of specimens. Martin said he also tried to implement what he believed was the first audit of the department's testing process. Martin told the court he received a call on the first day he began this audit at the department's east region offices.

"I was told I was being transferred to another department and to come back and move my office," Martin testified.

Martin said he also questioned how urine specimens were handled. Martin said that a chain of custody is paramount when ensuring specimens are not contaminated and tampered with and that test results are linked to the correct person.

"There's more holes in it than Swiss cheese," Martin told the court, referring to the department's chain of custody.

Martin testified he found refrigerators used to hold urine specimens were left unlocked and in some cases samples were forgotten.

"We had samples that sat in the back of the refrigerator for three months before somebody realized they were there," Martin testified.

Doctor James Goldman was also called to testify during the hearing. Goldman told the court he currently oversees the the department's database that tracks test results. Goldman also said he tried to warn his superiors about problems with the database that allowed test results to be changed with no notice or test results to be linked to the wrong person.

"(Information Technology) has banished me from contacting them to correct all these problems," Goldman testified. "I'm not allowed to set foot in IT."

Goldman said he is now required to send his concerns to his superior who, in turn, addresses these issues with the IT department.

Questions were also raised as to whether department employees were being asked to handle too many tests. Martin testified the department conducts between 19,000 and 25,000 drug tests a month.

"The amount of (urine analysis) tests taken at our labs is ridiculous," Martin told the court. "It's ridiculous to expect a person to take that many tests."

Another department employee who testified during Thursday's hearing told the court he had been tasked with administering between 60 and 100 tests in a single day.