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?

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