Sunday, August 26, 2012

Houston probationers did jail time based on faulty drug test results

Usually when this blog discusses actual innocence cases, we're talking about people wrongfully convicted of extremely serious crimes like rape or murder, typically where DNA evidence provides sufficient proof to overturn a jury verdict. Seldom, though, will the state acknowledge that innocent people are falsely accused on more petty, mundane matters, sometimes based on faulty forensic science or even a mere clerical error.

That's what's happened in Houston where the probation department has sometimes jailed probationers based on faulty or misrecorded results from urinalysis tests. Reported KTRK's Ted Oberg:
On Thursday, the head of the Harris County Probation Department told us he didn't know of anyone sent to jail over a bad drug test. On Friday, one of his own probationers came to court to prove him wrong.

The very problem the Harris Co. Probation Dept. would rather hide and deny walked right into court and swore to tell the truth.

"I wish I could have said more to that probation officer," said Richard Youst.

Youst was on probation for DWI when a judge put him in jail for 10 days after a supposed positive drug test for cocaine. It was a bad test result, but before attorneys figured it out, Youst lost his driver's license, his apartment and his job.

"Our practice is to act on it as soon as we know that there is an error," said Ray Garcia with Harris Co. Community Supervision.

Probation officers have known for a month, but never owned up to it.

"Nobody has contacted me from that probation office," said Youst.

A freelance Houston airline executive had the same problem. He didn't want to be identified, but he spent 16 hours in jail after a false test for marijuana. He lost two days of work including a huge presentation and lost his chance at a promotion.

"They knew about what had happened to other people and they did not fix it," said defense attorney Lisa Andrews.

Every drug test at the Harris Co. Probation Dept. gets an ID number. They're supposed to be scanned electronically, but according to testimony they often have to be entered into the computer by hand. There's no other ID that goes with it. So if the data entry is even one digit off, an innocent probationer gets hit with someone else's positive drug test result.

"They need to get their stuff straight," said Youst.

From inside the department Friday, Donald Martin, a 22-year probation employee, told Judge Denise Collins she may not be able to trust any Harris County drug test results. Martin testified, "The chain of custody has so many holes, I don't know if you can say any of the positives are truly positive." 
See additional coverage from Oberg and the Houston Chronicle. According to the Chronicle:
A supervisor who testified Friday said finding 3-month-old urine samples in the back of the division's unlocked refrigerators was not uncommon.

The old samples would simply be sent out as though it had been collected that day, said Donald Martin, a supervisor at the department.

As part of the court-mandated "chain of custody" that ensures the integrity of evidence, law enforcement has to show that an appropriate custodian has kept evidence from being tampered with before it can be admitted in court.

"When it comes to chain of custody," Martin testified, "there are more holes than Swiss cheese."
Doesn't inspire confidence, does it?

24 comments:

Lee said...

The defendants...they are just merely disposable casualties....

(sarcasm)

Anonymous said...

If there is a pile of shit on the floor you clean it up. It smells worse if you try to cover it up.

Lee said...

Welcome to Harris County!

Wes a bunch of tuff Texus Rop'em n Shoot'em Cowboyz dat r Texus tuff on crime.

metuchen said...

That really sucks!

Blue Roses said...

So, how can tax payers trust Any county in Texas?

A Texas PO said...

This can be a huge problem across the state since every CSCD uses a different vendor to test drug screens. TDCJ-CJAD refuses to set up a statewide contract with a testing facility, leaving each Department to find one on its own. This means your UA in Tarrant may have a completely different result in Val Verde. I've never undestood why officers and departments are so quick to use jail as a sanction for positive drug tests when there are so many other sanctions available (classes, drug counseling, increased reporting, increased drug testing, etc).

Anonymous said...

Here in Montgomery county they do things a little differently when they want to get you fired from your job. They make up some nonsense about you having a Diluted Urinalysis and send the SWAT Team to your job (in another county at that) to arrest you: http://blog.chron.com/newswatch/2012/07/diluted-urine-samples-send-dui-suspect-back-to-jail/

The Gestapo is thriving in Montgomery county...

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Good One, Texas PO. Distancing yourself while playing dumb in one paragraph at 9:33 AM (on the clock).

You know damn well that pay scale and promotions are tied to productivity. The only way you arn't full of shit is that the PO stands for Post Office.

This is a test - During your tenure, what percentage of your case load represents probationers arrested on a new charge that plea bargained vs. those having charges dropped? Hint - 90% to 97%.

Anonymous said...

probation office fault? how about it is the judges fault. they are the ones who ordered these people to be jailed, not the probation office. judges have the uncanny ability to deflect all arrows, and pin the blame to others. its the judges and the lawyers who have taken the oath to uphold the constitution, to provide the checks and balances, to protect constitutional rights. sanction the judges who believe freedom and liberty an the rule of law are just concepts.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Folks, while we are waiting for clairification, former probationers are asked if they ever heard these words -

"Take the plea, guilty or not, you are going to prison just for being on probation at the time of arrest." or "It doesn't matter what the test 'results' are, take the plea, guilty or not,....

Anonymous said...

9:33, 9:57, 11:52, 11:53,
You are all F.O.S.

Most likely a "tougher than shit" prosecutor,
Or maybe the Harris County Jail has too many empty beds...

A Texas PO said...

Thomas, I'm not on the clock, as I'm on vacation. (Gotcha #1). I'm not exactly sure what the rest of your comment has to do with what I posted. I know most commenters on here think that all POs are pieces of garbage, and that's fine, but that's also because you've never met me. Every CSCD has a progressive sanctions model to follow, per some decree from the State, and it's actually made my job easier and gives probationers a hint as to what could happen when technical violations occur. I can't stand recommending jail time for technical violations, but it's obvious that many departments use them a lot.

As for plea bargains, you can scream out shout until the cows come home, but probation is a post-sentencing entity. If your client pleas guilty when they are in fact innocent, there's absolutely nothing the probation officer can do about it. There are plenty of people who come through the courts and never see us. Sounds to me like you're blaming probation when the real problem you have has to do with the front end of the system.

Anonymous said...

Don't know how true this is but supposedly GPS is not exact science either. Supposedly "satellite drift" can report an offender with up to 10 yards or more margin of error. If this is true offenders on GPS could technically be incarcerated for equipment margin of error.

Anonymous said...

Wonder how often offenders "violate bond conditions" for a dirty piss test in probation or county operated bond programs that results in someone being thrown back in the jail? Accusations of violating bond have virtually no due process.

A Texas PO said...

BTW Thomas: Please clarify your question. Are you referring to those who plea bargained to get on probation? If so, 100% of my current caseload got here that way. If you're referring to new arrests while on probation, I'll tell you the same thing I tell my probationers: Due to the new arrest, I have to file a violation report with the court. However, in all of my recommendations to the court, if the new charge is dropped, then I recommend the probation be continued. I also recommend that my probationers in this situation who bond out of jail continue to report and complete the programs originally court-ordered (educational programs, counseling, community service, etc), so that they aren't terribly behind if the new charge is dropped. Right now, I have 4 probationers in this situation. I don't pass judgment on them because I'm not a judge, and the new charge has nothing to do with me unless they are placed on probation for that charge. Again, most who read this on this blog will think I'm "F.O.S." as Anon 12:17 eloquently stated (and I really don't care if you do), but this is how I operate. But as I and Anon 11:53am said earlier, the issues you raise have more to do with the front end of this system (prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges) and has absolutely nothing to do with me. Hell, I've even recommended that probationers obtain new counsel when I can see that they were stuck with an attorney who wasn't doing his job. I've even gone as far as to recommend to a judge that an attorney be removed from the appointment list due to repeated complaints about poor representation. Take that for what it's worth.

Anonymous said...

Harris county judges will violate an offender, issue an arrest warrant, and give a low bond.
Tell me who is getting rich off the system?

Another Texas P.O. said...

I continue to be amazed at the level of condescension directed at probation in general in GFB. Probation is an alternative to incarceration, and probation officers don't get to pick their "clients". Some of those clients are truly remorseful, and need minimal supervision. Others come to us with so many problems (no education, no job, drug use, mental health issues, etc.). Is probation perfect? No. Given the resources we have, we try to do the best we can. And because there are 122 departments across the state, each operating as separate entities, things may be done differently in each locale.

As to the Harris Co CSCD thing -- props to Chief Becker for taking the heat and not throwing anyone under the bus. Those who know him are not surprised -- he's an honest and faithful public servant. He's running the largest department in the state, and his satellite offices are each larger in terms of offenders served than most of the 121 other departments in the state. In any outfit that big, quality control is a challenge. It seems that at least one supervisor was aware of the problems -- why didn't he go to the top and report the bad news?

I agree with Texas P.O.-- technical violations should be dealt with progressive sanctions whenever possible. But there is a place for jail as a condition of probation, applied when other sanctions have failed. If anyone went to jail on a false positive, that is an injustice, and none of us can be proud of that. UA testing is a chemistry issue, and there are limitations to the process. Knowing that, you take measures to minimize the limitations, such as sending all positive UAs to the lab for GCMS confirmation, and then alleging only confirmed positive UAs.

I hope the Harris County judges let Chief Becker fix the problems. I know he will, given the chance. He would be the first to agree that sunlight is the best disinfectant. They have hundreds of P.O.s at Harris Co CSCD, and the vast majority are a credit to their profession. Let's not forget that in the race to lynch somebody.

Anonymous said...

The judge has refused to issue any more warrants for UA violations. She has also circulated this court record to all the other courts requesting that they do the same.

Harris Co PO's had better start getting creative in managing their case loads. No more throw them in jail to get the client out of their office.

Anonymous said...

If someone goes to jail for a faulty drug test, that is bullshit.

If a prosecutor allows an allegation into a Motion to Revoke regarding a drug test not confirmed by a lab, that is bullshit.

If a defense attorney advises a defendant to enter a plea of true at a Motion to Revoke Hearing based on a drug test not confirmed by a lab, that is bullshit.

If a Judge approves an agreed recommendation by the "esquires" before the bench where the only allegation is a positive drug test and the drug test isn't confirmed by a lab, and the agreed recommendation is revocation, that is bullshit.

If a probation officer and/or department recommends jail time instead of treatment for a positive drug test, the officer sucks at his/her job; and he department needs to catch up with the times.

Probation is necessary. Without it, every County in Texas would have a jail with a waiting list, or plea bargains would be -0- days jail and a fine.

Without probation, Texas would have to build so many prisons, it ain't funny.

The CJ system would crumble without what is known as the alternative to incarceration (aka: probation).

Do people get put on probation that shouldn't be on probation? That is a debate that could go on forever. But, these things are for sure, probation officers don't put people on probation, probation officers don't revoke terms of probation, probation officers get paid less than school teachers, probation departments are sorely underfunded by the Legislature, every CSCD is autonomous, probation officers have outrageous caseload sizes, and the list could go on and on and on.

Another Texas P.O. said...

Well, congratulations, haters. You got what you wanted... another good man's scalp. Paul Becker resigned this morning. Paul believed in rehabilitation, evidence-based practices, and treatment programs, and was a Chief Probation Officer admired by his peers. He was ill-served by middle management, and was forced to take the fall. Why anyone would take the job now is beyond me -- that poor devil will get no support from the Judges, just a quick hook when bad P.R. pops up. All that was really proven is an age old fact: that the ship's captain, responsible for everything that happens on his ship, cannot possibly know what is going on 24/7 on every deck. You have to have trusted subordinates. The good guys lost one today, and we'll never get it back. Enjoy your "victory", haters.

rodsmith said...

well another texas P.O. if what you say about him was true. then that is sad.

But you also say middle managment failed him. Why were they still there.

I never take a job unless i have ALL the authority i need to get the job done. In a case like this mess. That would include at a minim the ability to remove or fire anyone! Sounds like he was hired as a figurehead,,,,sucker to toss when needed.

JAMES GRIFFIN said...

Please look up my case james griffin ps/cs incollon co 2 yrs denied motion to suppress mr roach totallly ignored video.it was not till the end I realized my atty josh webber was in on it the hole 2 yr begged .me to take plea.i was unlawfully stopped and searched hav video to prove it 4 day b4 jury trial had formal pretrial hearring that I was 18 min late at 146 they revoked my bond I was told by my atty that if I did not take a plea I would go to jail imeadiatly no bond for a couple wks I was shocked trail set for monday and my atty say take plea in 8mo I can apply for early release I was railroad into a plea bc at trial by jury would hav won

Anonymous said...

It seems now the Harris County police are "visiting" dwi probationers' homes and searching for drugs and alcohol even if there has been no violations. I guess if they can't trust their own system, they can use intimidation to take away whatever liberties we have left. Welcome to the police state!

cheap football jerseys said...

This is a big problem in the whole state because each CSCD use a different suppliers to test drug screening. TDCJ - CJAD refused to set up a statewide contract and testing facilities, let each department to find one on its own. This means that you may have a UA Tarrant in completely different results in Val cape Verde. I have never undestood why officials and department will soon will use prison as sanctions for positive drug test when there are a lot of other sanctions available (class, drug consultation service, increased the report, increase the drug test, etc.).