Texas Department of Public Safety officials were aware of security breaches in the handling of their drug evidence as recently as 2006 and as far back as at least 2003 - problems such as failure to log evidence out of storage, containers of marijuana left open and the lack of a monitoring system for a high-security drug vault - according to the agency's internal audits.
The revelation about the warnings comes in the wake of last week's arrest of a technician at the state's Houston crime lab after a DPS investigation discovered he apparently had been for years selling cocaine smuggled out of the lab.
Jesus Hinojosa Jr., 30, has confessed to stealing the cocaine. He remains jailed on the charge of the delivery of a controlled substance. In a jailhouse interview with the Houston Chronicle, Hinojosa said it was easy to smuggle the drugs.
About 26 kilograms, or about 57 pounds, of cocaine are missing from the Houston DPS lab in Jersey Village, authorities said.
In the DPS' internal audit of the Houston lab in June, inspectors noticed problems concerning the handling of evidence - problems similar to ones documented three years earlier.
DPS officials downplayed the problems cited in the audits.
"As audits reveal that additional security measures are needed, they have largely been implemented," said DPS spokeswoman Tela Mange in a written response to questions from the Chronicle. "Additional measures will be implemented as a result of the (Hinojosa) incident."
But the chairman of the Texas Senate's Criminal Justice Committee, Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, urged all crime lab officials in Texas to take a hard look at their operations, though he stopped short of calling for a statewide investigation of DPS labs.
"I need to see a little more emotion, a little more urgency about this problem from the DPS officials and those who depend on this evidence, be it a prosecutor, judge or police agency," Whitmire said. He added that he plans to meet with DPS officials about the matter.
Drug transfers not reported
In the 2006 audit of the Houston lab, in response to the question of whether the lab had a secure chain-of-custody record - crucial for presenting evidence during prosecution - the inspector wrote that "evidence transfers are not always entered into the laboratory database as required by policy." Additionally, "some (lab workers) conduct analysis without documenting their possession of the evidence." In other words, lab workers were able to remove evidence from storage without reporting that they had done so.
Three years earlier, a DPS audit of its Houston crime lab turned up similar problems. Evidence in the lab's drug vault "were found be lacking the date on the seal," the 2003 report stated. "This violates DPS Laboratory policy as well as accreditation requirements."
The 2003 inspection of the Houston DPS crime lab also criticized the backlog of evidence - some of it 10 to 15 years old - that should have been destroyed.
Austin lab problems, too
The documents show that the problems aren't unique to the Houston lab.
In a 2004 DPS in-house inspection of its Austin lab, investigators took issue with the handling of evidence in the bulk marijuana storage vault.
"(N)umerous bundles of evidence had not been sealed after analysis," the report states. "Cuts into the bundles were made at the time of the examinations and there were no attempts to seal the openings. Marijuana could be removed without detection from these bundles."
In the Austin lab's main evidence vault, the seals on bundles of marijuana were not initialed and dated, according to the report. Additionally, in a draft version of the 2004 Austin lab audit, inspectors reported problems with what was described as the "high security vault" used primarily for storage of cocaine seizures. The report said that the vault "was not being monitored by security personnel on a regular basis."
In 2003, internal audits also found problems with the security and integrity of evidence at DPS labs in Austin, El Paso, Waco and Lubbock, in addition to Houston.
All the internal audits were conducted by, among others, DPS lab supervisors from other cities around the state. The reports were sent to numerous DPS officials, including the DPS Commission, according to the agency spokeswoman.
When asked if any attempts were made to determine if the problems mentioned in the audits had resulted in compromised evidence and what corrections had been made, Mange replied, "That is part of the investigation going on right now."
Harris County DA confident
District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal still says he does not think the integrity of Harris County criminal cases will be affected because his prosecutions rarely involve evidence from the Houston DPS lab.
According to DPS, the Houston crime lab handles evidence from law enforcement agencies in the nearby counties of Walker, Trinity, Polk, Tyler, Jasper, Newton, Grimes, Waller, Austin, Wharton, Matagorda, Brazoria, Fort Bend, Galveston, Liberty, Chambers, Hardin, Montgomery and San Jacinto. However, the agency does occasionally analyze evidence for agencies in Harris, Orange and Jefferson counties.
Whitmire continues to disagree with Rosenthal's assessment. "I'm just amazed when one of these problems is discovered, everybody says it's unique to that lab, or really doesn't affect that many cases," he said. "One case is too many."
In 2003, the Legislature gave DPS the responsibility for monitoring the accreditation of crime labs in Texas after widespread problems in the Houston Police Department crime lab. In 2005, legislation was passed and signed creating the Texas Forensic Science Commission, but the would-be watchdog agency has yet to be funded.