The Houston Forensic Science Center (HFSC) is a local government corporation created to provide independent forensic services to law enforcement agencies, primarily the Houston Police Department. A local government corporation is an independent, nonprofit business entity with its own directors, officers and employees.
The Houston City Council decided this structure would insulate the Center from any inappropriate influence by police, prosecutors, elected officials or special interest groups. In an effort to minimize political influence, the council approved articles of incorporation that prohibit the removal of a member of the board of directors before the end of a three-year term unless the person has engaged in intentional, unlawful behavior directly related to official duties.
HFSC currently receives the bulk of its funds from the City of Houston. The Center also has fee-for-service contracts with some agencies outside the city. The Houston Police Department eventually will be one of many law enforcement agencies purchasing HFSC's forensic services. Although the City of Houston is funding startup costs, the goal is for HFSC to become financially self-sustaining.
Without credible evidence, the Harris County District Attorney's Office will not accept charges and criminal suspects will be released. Timely and accurate evidence analysis protects the community. A suspect is innocent until proven guilty and has a right to objective evidence to try to prove that innocence. Good science can also prevent wrongful convictions, when an innocent person is put in jail and the actual perpetrator remains free.
As such, the operations of the HFSC are key to protecting the public safety of Houstonians. The Government Relations team worked closely with Dr. Peter Stout and Ramit Plushnick-Masti during session to advocate for a number of bills and appropriations. Below is a brief summary of those efforts.
Video testimony saves significant resources — both time and money — when used for trial. Analysts no longer need to travel to court where they sometimes wait for hours to testify for only a few minutes. It also saves money on testimony provided by analysts who work at commercial laboratories hired to do work for city, county and state crime laboratories. The laboratories often pay thousands of dollars for these analysts to travel from out-of-state to testify.
Senate Bill 1125 by Sen. Chuy Hinojosa and Rep. Gina Calanni allows forensic analysts to testify via video conferencing when the judge, prosecution and defense agree.
Filling a need to focus on survivors of sexual assault, House Bill 1590 by Rep. Donna Howard and Sen. Kirk Watson establishes a "sexual assault survivors task force."
The stakeholder task force will be created by the governor in the criminal justice division and includes a fiscal note of $1.5 million. The task force will study and provide recommendations to ensure best practices and protocols for the treatment of sexual assault survivors and their legal cases. The $1.5 million rider will allow the task force to pull together all relevant statewide audits and make recommendations for best practices.
This session, the House passed an omnibus bill that addresses a variety of issues regarding the processing of sexual assault kits.
House Bill 8 by Rep. Victoria Neave requires another statewide audit of untested sexual assault kits, threatening law enforcement agencies that don't participate with the removal of grant dollars.
The bill reduces to seven days the amount of time a law enforcement agency must collect the rape kit from the hospital following notification of collection. An agency that is more than 100 miles from the collection site will have 14 days to pick up the kit. Once the statewide backlog has been eliminated, crime labs will have 90 days to complete analysis and 30 days after that to upload eligible profiles to the DNA database (CODIS).
Crime labs and law enforcement agencies shall provide a quarterly report to DPS outlining the number of kits that have not yet been submitted to the crime lab, or the number that has not yet been analyzed. Failure to comply can impact grant eligibility. The statewide audit will be completed by September 2020. The evidence will be tested by September 2022. This bill is tied to funding to complete the audit and analysis of the evidence.
As with any session, not all needs were addressed. Specifically, the following items were left out of the state budget that the HFSC had advocated for: