Accuracy of HPD's BAT vans in question

July 28, 2011 5:38:12 PM PDT
A court case over the city's BAT vans could have an effect on future DWI cases because the accuracy of the vans' Breathalyzers is being called into question.

Lawyers are in court questioning whether possible problems with those BAT vans could compromise several dozen DWI cases.

The Houston Police Department BAT vans are mobile breath machines used to catch drunk drivers. For the past two days, DWI attorneys and prosecutors have been in court, asking whether each $200,000 van has been giving faulty results leading to questionable convictions.

"This is not the first time that it seems the Houston Police Department's crime lab has gotten itself into a pickle," criminal defense attorney Jordan Lewis said.

Former HPD Crime Lab worker Amanda Culbertson told the court she's one of three technical supervisors who quit after complaining up the chain of command about problems with these vans and Breathalyzer results.

Culbertson said she was "not satisfied with the department's response to concerns," and "...supervisors acted like it was no big deal" addressing the problems.

"There's been a documented trail, but it looks like HPD has failed to inform the District Attorney's Office of that, of the problems that they've had with the BAT Vans," criminal defense attorney Dane Johnson said.

The former crime lab worker told the court she cited electrical, mechanical and temperature issues that could have impacted the equipment testing suspected drunk drivers.

Eyewitness News obtained several HPD emails addressing the BAT vans. A lieutenant was worried last May about having to "explain what these problems could do to pending court cases."

The District Attorney's Office would not comment, but the controversy has lawyers who deal with a lot of DWI cases watching closely and waiting to see what the judge decides about the reliability of the BAT van tests.

"It's been very interesting to hear that the opinions of the experts are that this really isn't such a great idea to try and put a breath test machine in the BAT vans," criminal defense lawyer Tyler Flood said.

Late Thursday afternoon, Harris County District Attorney Patricia Lykos issued a statement about Culbertson's testimony saying, "We sponsor the crime laboratory's scientific evidence in our prosecutions. Accordingly, we have a responsibility to ensure that the evidence was collected and analyzed properly."

Late Thursday evening, the Houston Police Department issued the following statement:

"At this time, HPD is not aware of any tests being compromised due to temperatures within the BAT vans. We were alerted to past air conditioning problems within the BAT vans and have worked to correct the issue by installing rear air conditioning units in the vans. Additionally, all officers operating the BAT vans have been trained on the proper procedures to allow for air conditioners to work properly. Vans not kept at the proper temperature settings do not cause the instruments to give false readings. Instead, the instruments would not give a reading at all, thus preventing any invalid tests.

"DPS personnel are currently serving as technical supervisors for the BAT vans. As a rule, HPD does not comment on past or present personnel issues."

The DA's Office asked the judge for more time to investigate some of the issues with the BAT van testing. Attorneys are due back in court on August 15.


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