HOUSTON - Local 2 Investigates poured over thousands of Harris County probation department emails, lab reports and letters following last month's explosive courtroom hearing that exposed a drug testing system rife with human error and shoddy record keeping.
"I think what's at stake is the integrity of our criminal justice system," said attorney Lisa Andrews, who helped expose multiple problems with how the department handles the testing of urine samples collected from people on probation.
Emails examined by Local 2 Investigates show a trail of questions and warnings signs that date back six years. One 2006 email from a probation employee regarding urine analysis statistics stated the system "has too many loose ends." That same year, another employee wrote about concerns with urine analysis reports printing out incorrectly. The employee wrote: "What should we do about those incorrect reports? Some of those were sent to judges."
While the department's system was updated and automated over the years, the concerns continued. In 2009, one department branch pleaded for extra help to handle the volume of probationers coming in for drug tests. "Mistakes of this magnitude cannot be tolerated as it could affect the client's freedom and possibly leave the department open to litigation, liability and credibility questions," an email read. That same year, probation department employees began questioning test results. The subject line of one 2009 email read, "UA Result Mix Up," and was questioning how two different probationers could get two different results for a single test.
Other concerns were raised in a 2010 email where a probation department employee wrote: "We have a client that has admitted to heroin use on a continuous basis even while being submitted to UA. However, the cups registered negative results on several occasions." It is not clear from the documents examined by Local 2 Investigates whether this employee ever received an answer.
That same year, another department employee expressed frustration that samples were getting "backed up" at the lab because she no longer had the ability to correct error reports. That employee wrote: "When there are hundreds of UAs sitting waiting to be tested the blame falls in my lap and I cannot do anything to fix it."
In 2010, department employees Donald Martin and Dr. James Goldman tried to implement a pilot program that would standardize policies and procedures for the collection and testing of urine samples "to reduce error rates such aswrongful switching of UA samples between one client and another (which happened in the not too distant past)." Last month, Martin testified that just as he was beginning to try to implement these changes, he was transferred to another division within the department.
In 2011, Goldman warned in one email that data entry mistakes made by the private lab conducting confirmatory drug tests could override test results kept in the department's database without the department being notified. Goldman wrote he noticed the county's vendor entered the wrong date for a test result, "what we need is an in-house system that will flag us when this type of error occurs."
A response to Goldman's email read, "If vendor fix (sic) the problem on the 'system', not just data then it shouldn't happen again. There is no need to add any flag on our side. Adding more code in system sometime (sic) will cause more trouble."
Goldman and Martin's concern about the department's system not set up to catch data entry mistakes became a central point in last month's court hearing before Judge Denise Collins. Emails and testimony revealed that data entry mistakes caused numerous drug test results to be linked to the wrong person.
In one case, Richard Youst testified a "false positive" drug test helped lead to his probation being revoked. Youst spent 10 days in county jail.
"When I got locked up, I lost my license, I lost my job, I lost everything," said Youst during an interview last month.
Youst, a first time driving while intoxicated offender with no history of drug use, said he became frustrated when his probation officer did not believe his claim the drug test was wrong. In a probation report for Youst an officer wrote, "Client has a bad attitude."
"They marginalized those people, they moved them to different departments," said Andrews, referring to how she believed the department handled concerns raised by Martin and Goldman.
Following the three-day hearing, the department's director, Paul Becker, resigned as did two of his top lieutenants. The Harris County District Attorney's Office issued a moratorium on using test results from the department as evidence "until we are satisfied that proper procedures and protocols are in place."
Judge Belinda Hill, the administrative judge for all Harris County criminal courts, told Local 2 Investigates that she is "confident" no judges will use the department's drug test results as the sole deciding factor in a person's case until these issues are corrected. Hill added this limbo period brings up a "public safety concern." Hill said some probationers and those on bond continuing to use drugs and who should face consequences may get a free pass until the credibility of the department's test results are restored.
Local 2 Investigates asked the department what steps are currently being taken to correct the problems exposed during last month's hearing and how long those corrections may take to implement. Local 2 received a written statement reading, "Please be advised that (Harris County Community Supervision and Corrections Department) is not at liberty to grant interviews or otherwise comment on any matters related to the HCCSCD or One Source Toxicology Laboratory, Inc.'s urinalysis systems."
One Source is the private lab that has performed confirmatory drug tests for the department intermittently since 2002. One Source has been the department's vendor since 2011. In a bluntly-worded letter to the District Attorney's Office dated Sept. 7, One Source Director Steve Harris warned data entry mistakes were only a small portion of the problems facing the department moving forward.
"The county has been using a poor chain of custody for years," Harris' letter warns.
When a person on probation is required to give a urine sample for drug testing, something called a chain of custody is created. This process helps ensure a sample is not contaminated or tampered with and that test results are linked to the right person. In Harris County, those samples are collected at different probation department offices. Department employees collecting those samples will conduct a presumptive test to determine if any drugs are in a person's urine. If that preliminary test is considered positive, then the sample is supposed to be sealed and sent to One Source to perform a confirmatory test before the results are used as evidence against a person.
Harris' letter argues these initial tests should not be handled by department employees and that the current system used by the county is open to interpretation and potential bias.
"A county employee, judge or attorney should not be making decisions concerning the interpretation of drug test results," the letter reads.
Harris suggests the department either send all probationers to a private scientific lab for collection and testing or at least stop allowing department employees to perform initial tests and then deciding which samples get sent to a lab for confirmation. Harris also said the department needs to create individual chain of custody forms for each sample instead of a creating a single batch form for numerous samples sent to the lab at the end of each day.
In a bluntly-worded section of the letter, Harris writes, "It is time for the county to conform to standard forensic procedures that have been used by other counties and employers for years. It is the only way to restore faith in the system."
This portion of the letter echoes Martin's testimony during last month's hearing when he described the department's chain of custody having "more holes in it than Swiss cheese."
An interim director for the department is expected to be chosen in the coming weeks.
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