Harris County BAT van sits unused for nearly 1 year

By Amy Davis - Reporter/Consumer Expert

HOUSTON - One-hundred-sixty-seven people died in alcohol-related crashes in Harris County last year, making it the deadliest county in the country for drinking and driving. 

On June 25, 2011, 19-year-old Aaron Pennywell become one of those victims when he was hit and killed by a drunk driver less than 2 miles from his home in northwest Harris County.

On the morning Pennywell died, one of the most expensive tools in Harris County's arsenal to catch drunk driving was sitting idle. It's a breath-alcohol testing van, commonly called a BAT van.

The sheriff's office first put its $80,000 BAT van on the streets in May 2010. It's designed to save time and save lives in that it is a completely mobile breathalyzer system. At least it's supposed to be. Local 2 Investigates discovered that the van hasn't moved in more than nine months.

"Why did they buy this thing at all?" asked Trent Seibert, when Local 2 Investigates told him what it had found.

Seibert is the editor of the Texas Watchdog, a website dedicated to uncovering government waste.

"This is $80,000 for a vehicle that's sitting dormant, not being used," he said.

Local 2 Investigates had the same question, so it went straight to Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

"We did use it," Garcia initially replied.

Local 2 Investigates checked. Since it was put into service in May 2010, deputies used the van for 80 breath tests. It hasn't been used at all since October 2011. When the cost is calculated, it comes to $1,000 for each breath test conducted. The van has less than 4,000 miles on it.

The sheriff said the BAT van hasn't been used recently because it's easier for deputies to drive suspects to one of 16 breathalyzers scattered throughout the county. He said the machinery on the BAT van is sensitive and it's difficult to keep the equipment cool in the Texas heat.

"Couldn't you put more people in jail if you used this bat van effectively?"  Local 2 investigator Amy Davis asked the sheriff.  

"Probably not," he replied. "Our ratio of arrests has not been affected with the fact that we have not deployed this van in this calendar year. It makes me think that that resource, that BAT van, may not have a future, at least in this organization."

"I mean, think about this," said Seibert. "You have an $80,000 van sitting unused in a parking lot while drunk driving is happening all over the county."

Garcia is quick to point out that the van was purchased with money from criminal seizures and forfeitures. No tax dollars were used. The District Attorney's Office gave the money to the Sheriff's Office before Garcia took office. The van was already purchased when he was sworn in, but it was outfitted with the breathalyzer and dispatched under Garcia's watch.  

"This is $80,000 that could have gone to anything else," said Seibert.  "Think about it … another salary, another squad car."

Garcia said it's important that citizens know that his office is putting people in jail for drinking and driving. A spokesman told Local 2 Investigates that the latest statistics that show DWI arrests have consistently gone up since 2008. DWI fatalities increased in 2011 from 2010, but, so far, fatalities are down this year.

The sheriff said he doesn't know what he'll do with the BAT van. Other law enforcement agencies have suggested parking it in busy areas with bars to remind people not to drink and drive. Garcia said he will consider that, selling it or just hanging onto it in case the agency does want to use it in the future. 

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