Is an HPD task force jeopardizing DWI cases?

March 2, 2011 4:45:32 AM PST
Are maintenance troubles with HPD's fleet of DWI vans jeopardizing drunk driving cases? Our 13 Undercover unit tries to find out in this exclusive story.

Nearly $600,000 was used to buy a fleet of mobile breath machines two years ago, but HPD wasn't even telling prosecutors about all the troubles.

Every crime fighter can have trouble with his car. Even the Batmobile breaks down.

[From Batman movie:

Robin: What's wrong Batman?

Batman: The manifold pressure is dropping. I think we better stop and check.]

These are BAT vans, Houston Police Department's fleet of mobile breath machines to catch drunk drivers -- $600,000 of your money.

"When you make that poor choice, HPD is going to be out there," said Catherine Evans with Harris County District Attorney' Office.

If, of course, the BAT vans work...

"We just rarely ever see them used. They sit their parked, you know, for months at a time," DWI lawyer Doug Murphy said.

We showed you last night how little some of these very expensive crime-fighting tools have been used. In two years, one $100,000 van at least has never been used.

"It's almost two years," we said.

"That's correct," said HPD Traffic Enforcement's Capt. Carl Driskell said.

And it's not the only one we found collecting dust, because something went wrong 14 of the 16 times they tried to use it last year.

[From Batman movie:

Robin: Holy nightmare!]

In March it was the AC. Think in six months they could've fixed that? After all, the van wasn't being used to process a single drunk driving suspect.

Look at September's maintenance report. Still hot air blowing. The temperature in the van is crucial to proving who's drunk and who's not.

"The breath instruments have to be maintained at certain temperature, so if it's not cooling properly, you can't use the instruments," Murphy said.

In six months. One BAT van processed only two suspects. Turns out electrical problems had interfered with the Intoxilyzer machine.

[From Batman movie:

Batman: It could be compromising.

Robin: Of course. ]

In May, an email detailed electrical problems in most of the BAT van fleet, quoting, "This is having a very negative effect on the four $6,000 Intox instruments ... and the overall effectiveness of the BAT vans."

The lieutenant was worried about having to, quote, "explain what these problems can do to pending court cases."

"The lieutenant may think there's a problem, but I don't see that there's a problem," Driskell said.

And the DA's office has never been told of any of the maintenance problems we've uncovered.

"It is so sloppy and it's an embarrassment. HPD has been cutting corners on science," Murphy said.

"It's not that we're trying to hide it, but I don't see a need in telling them that. If they wanna know that, we'd be glad to share that information," Driskell said.

"Have they ever asked?" we asked him.

"No," he replied.

"They took an inaccurate device and made it even more unreliable," Murphy said.

[From Batman movie:

Robin: Holy Merlin the Magician! We're in for a shock.]

HPD emails show some of the BAT van personnel have actually failed the test to do the drunk test. Even today, some members of Houston's DWI task force haven't even taken the test.

"We're gonna get out there and we're gonna find some of these drunks before they get into crashes," said HPD Assistant Chief Brian Lumpkin of a new drunk driving crackdown initiative.

HPD knew this story was coming when they announced their big DWI crackdown this month. They now promise these two-year-old barely used BAT vans will be out every single weekend, four of them. But you paid for six.

"I think if you come back and do this story next year, you'll see that the vans are much more utilized," Driskell said.

We used Batman and Robin to help illustrate the trouble with the BAT vans, but make no mistake, when taxpayers buy crime fighting weapons, they want to see them used.

You can see the deadly serious side of this problem below:

All DWI fatal accidents in Houston in 2010
All DWI arrests in Houston in 2010
All fatal accidents in Houston