More errors revealed during probe into drug test problems at Harris Co. Probation Dept.

August 24, 2012 5:34:57 PM PDT
One digit could mean the difference between freedom and jail time for the tens of thousands of probationers in Harris County. The second day of an under-oath probe into the county's Probation Department uncovered more holes and human error that sent innocent people to prison. And on Friday, we heard from one of them.

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."

Martin blamed the problem on well-known computer issues and the sheer volume of tests -- more than 22,000 a month in Harris County alone.

"The amount of urinalysis is just ridiculous. It's ridiculous to ask someone to take that many urinalysis tests in the time and space we have," Martin testified.

After we first reported the problems Thursday, former judge and current Congressman Ted Poe said it may be time for the men at the top to be fired.

"The people who are in charge of the process, if they are not making sure that procedures are being followed to make sure that the information that is the result of the drug test accurate, then they need to lose their job," Rep. Poe told us by phone.

Over the course of this two-day hearing, we heard from several probation employees who warned superiors about these very problems. Apparently the problems weren't fixed in time.

Even after two days, this hearing is far from over. The man whose job may be on the line should take the stand on Monday, trying to defend his department and protect his job.

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