Alleged drug test errors at Harris County Probation Department

August 23, 2012 8:28:44 PM PDT
On Thursday, there was an in-depth look, under oath, at the alleged mess at the Harris County Probation Department. Complaints of a system riddled with errors sending the innocent to jail.

Probationers are people in our community getting a second chance to prove they can live a clean life. And sometimes the only way to prove they're doing that is with extensive drug testing. The system relies on those tests to be accurate, but people deep inside the program told the judge there are serious problems.

This is a busy place. It's one of the spots in Harris County probationers go to check-in and get a drug test. A positive result could mean going back to jail. But after hours of testimony Thursday, the probation department may have a tough time standing by all those results.

"There's no chain of custody. And at the end of the day, you just can't relay on a test that's given by the department to these probationers, to people on bond because there are no safeguards," said defense attorney Lisa Andrews.

She represents one of those probationers who tested positive. His was one of the 24,000 drug tests given every month in Harris County. Almost 2,600 of them come back positive.

In an incredibly rare move, Judge Denise Collins is listening to testimony from a courtroom full of witnesses, including the guy in charge -- Director of Harris Co. Community Supervision Paul Becker.

Ted Oberg: The allegation is that the urinalysis program over there is just in horrible disarray. Is that the case?
Paul Becker: That's not the case.
Oberg: Then how are people who shouldn't be getting positive results ending up with positive results?
Becker: Occasionally, there may be an error made by the vendor who we submit our UAs to.

The chief scientist at that vendor, One Source Labs, took the stand on Thursday. He said he repeatedly warned probation for months that simple, but avoidable, clerical errors could result in false positives.

Steve Harris said the county ignored his warnings and he knew of 31 occasions where a positive drug test was attached to the wrong person.

And from inside the department, a current employee told the judge, "Every month, I'd have an administrative error and it would come up as a positive on another person."

Andrews thinks she knows of at least one case where it resulted in an innocent probationer ending up in jail.

"I think that that has happened, yes," said Andrews.

Ted Oberg: How many people do you think have ended up in jail over a false positive test?
Paul Becker: I have no idea.
Oberg: Has it ever happened?
Becker: Not that I'm aware of. I have no idea.
Oberg: Not that you're aware of or it hasn't happened?
Becker: I don't know.

On Friday, it's likely that Becker will get a grilling over that very issue. That's just how serious the problems are and how serious the consequences of sending an innocent person back to the Harris Co. Jail.


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