Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday dropped a two-decade-old breath-alcohol testing contract with a private laboratory, in spite of claims that the district attorney’s office had pushed for the change in retaliation against a former police lab supervisor’s court testimony.
The court unanimously voted to hire the Texas Department of Public Safety for all the Harris County Sheriff’s Office breath-testing needs, choosing to not renew a contract with Lone Star College. Court members deferred responsibility for the choice to other county officials, including the district attorney’s office, which denied any retaliation against Lone Star.
Last month, three local defense lawyers came before the court and accused the district attorney’s office of asking county officials to not renew the Lone Star contract in retaliation against Amanda Culbertson, a former Houston Police Department crime lab supervisor who had given court testimony casting doubt on the accuracy of test results from the HPD’s breath-testing vans, potentially affecting DWI cases. Culbertson now works for the college’s breath-alcohol testing training program.
The contract with DPS, which began already, will cost the county $330,000 in the first year, which would be $12,000 less than Lone Star’s contract. State law reimburses the county $22.50 for each DWI conviction it obtains without using DPS technicians; Harris County collected $220,000 from the state from 2008 through 2010.
If convictions were to continue at similar rates, the DPS contract could end up being pricier than the Lone Star contract.
Because the DPS oversees the Texas’ breath-alcohol testing program, the agency has a broader knowledge base with more experienced personnel who focus solely on breath testing. The district attorney’s office also has a preference for larger regional and statewide institutions in forensic science.