Thursday, November 10, 2011

Breath test coverup

Amanda Culbertson has a conscience, which is another way of saying that she wasn’t well-suited to government “work.” Until recently she was employed by the Houston Police Department as a crime lab supervisor. In 2009, she became aware of serious problems with the reliability of the department’s roadside blood alcohol testing vehicles, more commonly known as BAT vans.

Over the past decade, hundreds of police departments nation-wide have purchased the vehicles with the help of federal grants. The testing device deployed in them, the Intoxilyzer, is considered infallible by law enforcement agencies and most trial judges. However, the Kentucky-based company that manufactures the the Intoxilyzer has refused to disclose its source code. Without access to the source code, the device's findings are unverifiable. As one defendant points out, the machine could simply be a gimmicky random number generator, rather than a finely calibrated scientific instrument.

In 2008, it was discovered that a supervisor for the Houston Police Department had falsified BAT van inspection records for at least the previous eighteen months, thereby calling into question test results in at least 2,600 cases. When Culbertson was appointed to supervise the inspections, she learned that indifferently trained police officers allowed the units to overheat, which would skew test results. In addition, a glitch in the system caused the much-heralded Intoxilyzer to reset every time the air conditioner was turned on.

Over the course of several months, Culbertson tried to get officials in the police department and the Harris County DA’s office to address her concerns. None of them was interested in disturbing what had become a very profitable scam.

In June, Culbertson and two of her colleagues quit their jobswith the HPD. “We could no longer choose between a paycheck and our integrity,” Culbertson explained. Not surprisingly, she was called to testify by attorneys representing some of the hundreds of people facing DUI charges as a result of BAT van tests.

In professional terms, Culbertson landed on her feet: She was hired by a laboratory at Lone Star College that had a contract to conduct breathalyzer analysis for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. Shortly thereafter, the Harris County Commission – at the initiative of DA Pat Lykos – ended its contract with the Lone Star College lab. In effect, Lykos – in an act of vulgar retaliation-- arranged for Culbertson to be fired.

Harris County’s 185th criminal court grand jury, which had been investigating problems with the BAT vans, called Culbertson to testify, along with former Harris County Prosecutor Brent Mayr. Lykos dispatched two members of her flying monkey corps – assistant DAs Carl Hobbs and Steve Morris – to “monitor” the grand jury testimony.

Since Lykos and her office were suspected of covering up the use of tainted evidence and retaliating against a whistleblower, the DA and her underlings were barred from being present in any capacity other than as sworn witnesses. Accordingly, when Lykos’s minions materialized during Culbertson’s testimony, the Grand Jury Foreman ordered them to leave. When that directive was ignored, the Foreman instructed the Baliff to remove them or place them under arrest.

Lykos unsuccessfully sought a court order compelling the grand jury to grant access to her underlings. When that effort failed, the DA's office exploited a back-channel to obtain official transcripts of the grand jury testimony. That led to a summons from Judge Susan Brown to Hobbs and Morris, along with court reporters Javier Leal and Katherine Chagaris, who face the possibility of contempt citations and the prospect of six months in jail.

The Harris County grand jury's insurrection caused consternation in the DA's office, and astonishment in the local media. "All too often in the past, Harris County grand juries have functioned as rubber stamps providing prosecutors with indictments without impartial scrutiny of their substance," notes the Houston Chronicle. Of course, this is true of practically every grand jury since the enactment of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure in 1946....

What is happening in Harris County is not an example of a grand jury going "rogue," but rather one behaving exactly as it should. It is interposing itself on behalf of the public by investigating a federally subsidized revenue-collection racket, and the abusive prosecutor who presides over it. Hopefully its example will prove to be contagious.

More here

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