Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A demotion

Now, lest anyone think I'm biased with regard to the unmitigated disaster known as the HPD breath alcohol testing van (BAT van) program, I am now giving the Harris County District Attorney's Office a little equal time. 

This is a statement from the DA's Office dated November 8, 2011 addressing concerns raised about the program:
To the citizens of Harris County,

As many of you know, there have been several news stories regarding the Houston Police Department’s Breath Alcohol Testing (BAT) vans, the evidence they provide, the technicians who perform the work and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office (HCDAO). 

A technician, who is a former employee of the HPD crime lab and supervised the BAT van testing, testified on July 27 and 28 that she believed it is possible that the breath tests conducted by the HPD BAT vans could be problematic. 

August 4, representatives of the HCDAO notified the Scientific Director at the Texas Department of Public Safety—the authority that develops rules and regulations and provides training and laboratory support to local, state and federal authorities for breath alcohol testing throughout the state—of her claims. 

August 11, in a meeting between HCDAO and the technician she stated that she could not verify the accuracy of results of an intoxilyzer instrument that had previously experienced overheating in a HPD BAT van. She said that she could not testify to the accuracy of such intoxilyzer results because this issue had never before been scientifically tested.

August 12, the HCDAO issued a Brady Notice to attorneys to inform them of the potentially exculpatory, or mitigating, evidence raised by the technician and to not allow any HPD BAT van cases to be resolved unless the defendant is made aware of the technician’s comments.

Additionally on August 12, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office requested that the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Breath Alcohol Laboratory conduct scientific tests on the HPD BAT van and the intoxilyzer instruments.

August 23, representatives from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office met again with the technician. At this interview the technician said she believed that all breath tests conducted by the HPD BAT vans dating from summer 2009 - present were suspect because she believed HPD BAT vans were an unsuitable testing location. August 24, the HCDAO distributed a second Brady notice to attorneys alerting them to the technician’s comments.

The Texas Department of Public Safety conducted an Ambient Temperature Study on the HPD BAT van and intoxilyzer instruments that addressed the technician’s concerns. Scientists concluded that the HPD BAT van instruments correctly analyzed breath alcohol concentrations .

October 28, a DWI jury trial was held in a County Criminal Court where evidence was presented in open court about the reliability and accuracy of the HPD BAT vans. The defense presented their position on the reliability of the HPD BAT van instruments. After hearing all the evidence, the jury returned a verdict of guilty.

It is our duty to see that justice is done and to protect the lives, property and rights of our citizens. We respect the rule of law and strive to always do the right thing.
The "technician" referred to is Amanda Culbertson, the former technical supervisor in the HPD crime lab. The statement from Ms. Lykos' office is an interesting exercise in the use of language. Ms. Culbertson is a technician, but the DPS personnel who conducted tests on the breath test machines are scientists.

However, prior to Ms. Culbertson's leaving the crime lab, prosecutors delighted in touting Ms. Culbertson's professional qualifications. She was the scientist in charge of maintaining the machines. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, she was a forensic scientist. Before a breath test result could be entered into evidence, Ms. Culbertson had to testify that the machine was working properly and that it was reliable.

Now that she's raising concerns over the reliability of the testing program she is a mere technician. According  to the Collins English Dictionary, a technician is "a person employed in a laboratory... or scientific establishment to do practical work." In other words, a mere button pusher.

So, in recent weeks we've been told that HPD isn't trustworthy and that the person who maintains the breath test machines is doing "practical" work. Any more gems for us, Ms. Lykos?

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