Precinct 4 evidence scandal: What happens now?
Questions of oversight arose from scandal
HARRIS COUNTY, Texas – Questions of oversight arose from the scandal enveloping the Precinct 4 Constable's Office following revelations evidence in ongoing criminal cases was improperly destroyed.
To date, the Harris County District Attorney's Office has been forced to dismiss more than 100 criminal charges because of the destroyed evidence.
"There's no explanation. There's no rational excuse. This should not have happened," said defense attorney Tyler Flood, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. "I've never seen anything like this before, ever."
A now-former corporal with Precinct 4, Christopher Hess, is accused of destroying evidence without a court order. However, a Precinct 4 employee complaint report obtained by Channel 2 Investigates shows trouble was brewing in the property room long before Hess was fired over the incident.
According to Precinct 4 officials, Hess was the sole property room manager for the past 14 years. According to the report, Hess described his job as "exhausting and stressful" and "deemed it a labor of love." Hess told investigators "over the years" he asked for a second deputy to help, but it "never seemed to be within the budget."
Statements made to investigators show another corporal, Mike Lacher, was asked by Constable Mark Herman to help Hess clear out old cases from the property room. That work began in January 2016.
Lacher told investigators he found "boxes marked Drugs stacked eight feet high making passage impossible," and the "gun room was in total disarray with various long guns piled on top of each other." Lacher also stated an outer storage building assigned to the property room was in "total disarray."
In the report, Hess blames Lacher for ordering the destruction of evidence in ongoing cases. Hess told investigators Herman put Lacher in charge of the cleanup and he was following his orders. Herman, Lacher and Chief Donald Stewart all deny Lacher was put in charge of Hess. All three state Lacher, who is now retired, was simply brought in to assist Hess.
Herman maintains Hess was the only one responsible for improperly disposing of evidence from the property room.
The Precinct 4 report also shows Hess told investigators he believed the Texas Health and Safety Code allowed for the destruction of evidence without a court order. Investigators pressed Hess on this assertion.
"I asked Hess where does it say (HSC) you can destroy property/drugs in open/pending cases. He responded, "it doesn't say you can't," the investigator wrote.
An investigator noted later in the report Hess admitted he may have misunderstood state code.
"Which is kind of dumbfounding if you're in law enforcement," Flood said.
Flood also said state law is clear that evidence in ongoing criminal cases cannot be destroyed without a judge's order. Precinct 4's internal policy on evidence storage and retention states the same.
An investigator later wrote, "Cpl. Hess' actions are unbecoming of an officer and have brought discredit upon himself, the department, and has adversely affected the operations of the department."
A spokesperson for the District Attorney's Office, Jeff McShan, told KPRC a grand jury will likely review the matter by the end of the month to determine if criminal charges are warranted.
VIEW: C4 Report (NOTE: Highlighted portions were made by KPRC and not Precinct 4 or any other outside agency)
After the scandal at Precinct 4's property room came to light, questions quickly turned to oversight.
"Apparently, nobody was overseeing any of this. That's the real problem here," Flood said.
According to records obtained by KPRC, Hess did not have an employee evaluation between 2001 and 2014. Hess' last employee evaluation was in September 2015. At that time, Hess' supervisor wrote, "Cpl. Hess has maintained the Property Division in a professional manner. He is good at what he does and I am proud to have him in my chain of command."
The Harris County Auditor's Office does have the authority to audit constables' property rooms. County records show auditors checked Precinct 4's property room in May 2015 as part of what is commonly called a "closeout" audit. These type of audits occur when an elected official leaves office. At the time of the audit, Ron Hickman had recently been appointed Harris County sheriff, and Herman was appointed as constable.
VIEW: Closeout audit
Auditors did not note any major problems with Precinct 4's property room. However, both Hess and Lacher told investigators auditors did indicate to them the property room needed better organization and was overcrowded.
KPRC has learned there is no set standard as to when or how often property rooms are audited by the County Auditor's Office. However, in light of the problems discovered at Precinct 4, the auditor has been checking other constables' property rooms. Some problems have been found during these audits, but nothing to the level of what was discovered at Precinct 4.
County records did show both Constables Alan Rosen and Heliodoro Martinez had to spend considerable time reorganizing their property rooms and tracking down unaccounted for evidence after taking over from their predecessors.
Officials with the Auditor's Office told KPRC they will now be paying closer attention to property rooms in light of the recent scandal.
When it comes to the collection, storage and retention of evidence; all eight precincts craft their own policies. The policies reviewed by KPRC all mirror state law when it comes to the destruction of evidence in pending criminal cases.
"I think at one point commissioners will have to weigh in on this," Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack said.
Radack said there has been increasing discussions as to whether there needs to be a single policy governing all eight constable precincts and whether there needs to be a single facility to house evidence.
"To have one central place makes sense to me," Radack said.
A spokesperson for County Judge Ed Emmett said he was hesitant to give an answer to these questions without first having any formal discussions.
"No one has yet approached Commissioners Court, privately or publicly to his knowledge, and he hesitates to weigh in (on) this issue without an actual proposal to consider," Joe Stinebaker said.
Radack said he thinks a formal proposal on this issue will be presented to commissioners after the first of the year.
Meanwhile, the full scope of the problems at Precinct 4 are still coming out. Defense attorney Alli Cannon, who works in Flood's law firm, recently had a case dismissed.
"It was a DWI first. It happened July of last year," Cannon said.
Cannon said the case involved Precinct 4 and a police report noted there was video of the traffic stop. However, she said when she asked for a copy of the video, "they said this video was not in existence."
KPRC asked all eight constables if they support having evidence collected by all precincts stored in a central location and whether they feel there is a need for a single policy governing evidence collection, storage and retention for all precincts? The answers received are below.
Constable Alan Rosen, Precinct 1:
Question #1: "Not at this point because I would have to first examine the details of (the) centralization plan to see if it would meet the high quality and standards we set at Precinct 1 when we overhauled our evidence preservation system in November 2015. The goal is to make sure evidence collection and storage is done right and that the justice system works smoothly, justly and fairly."
Question #2: "Yes, I believe a standard policy that meets or exceeds the minimum national standard for the collection, storage and retention of evidence should be followed. The standards established by the International Association for Property and Evidence can be used as a guide and will ensure uniformity among all precincts. At Precinct 1, we go above those minimum national standards already."
Constable Chris Diaz, Precinct 2:
Question #1: There probably is a need for a centralized property room. If a study was done to show there is a need for a single property room then Precinct 2 would be on-board.
Question #2: We think this is a great idea, as long as all the Constables had input.
Constable Ken Jones, Precinct 3:
Question #1: "I have mixed feelings concerning the storing of all Constables' evidence in a central location. If we had control over our own section in the central location I would agree to it. We are all responsible for our own department’s evidence room inventory and accountability. If the County decided to pursue a centralized location, I would work with them."
Question #2: "I absolutely believe the County should adopt a single policy. That way we are all on the same page across the board."
Constable Mark Herman, Precinct 4:
Question #1: "If the Central Storage location would be a more effective mechanism for evidence storage and the overall integrity of evidence chain of custody, I would support it."
Question #2: "If all 8 Precincts had collaboration with everyone on their currently existing policies, and the County Attorney and District Attorney had input, I would support it."
Constable Phil Camus, Precinct 5:
Question #1 and #2: "Our current procedure states that property recovered in the unincorporated county is transferred to the Harris County Sheriff's Office property room for permanent retention. Evidence recovered within the city limits is logged in Houston Police Department's property room. Precinct 5 has a long-standing relationship with both the Harris County Sheriff's Office and Houston Police Department in reference to handling and retaining evidence and property. This department will always be open to discussing or hearing additional ideas on how we can better execute this process."
Constable Heliodoro Martinez, Precinct 6:
Questions #1 and #2: Yes, I would support collected evidence by Constables offices to be stored in a centralized facility. I believe that the eight Constables offices the County Attorney's office and DA's office should all provide input into the policies governing evidence collection, storage and retention.
Constable May Walker, Precinct 7:
Question #1: "No, Constable May Walker does not support having evidence collected by all Constables’' Precincts stored in a central location."
Question #2: "Yes, Constable May Walker does feel there needs to be a single policy governing evidence collection, storage and retention for all 8 Precincts."
Constable Phil Sandlin, Precinct 8:
Question #1: "No. Property and evidence still has to be handled and processed by our agency and because of that, a secure property room would still be needed within our facility for that purpose and for temporary storage. A central property room would place the additional burden on our staff of having to transport evidence to an offsite location once it is processed. In our case, that location is a considerable distance from our facility. Precinct 8 maintains a well-organized and secure property room and to date, we have had no problems maintaining the integrity of evidence. We are also fortunate to have recently moved into a new facility and we were able to design a property room that meets or exceeds IAPE standards for property rooms. Precinct 8 recently underwent a routine audit, conducted by the Harris County Auditor's Office, and was given a 100% passing score with no problems or deficiencies noted."
Question #2: "Yes. There does need to be a policy in place to ensure the proper collection, storage and retention of evidence. However, this type of policy is not a 'one size fits all' and should simply set the minimum standards. In Precinct 8, we feel we have a solid policy regarding evidence handling. We have invested a lot of time and resources to ensure we meet the high standards that are expected when it comes to evidence handling and are open to having discussions with and offering support to other agencies on the topic."
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