For Houston

Crime Lab

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.

Senate Bill 1125: Video Testimony

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.

House Bill 1590: Sexual Assault Survivors Task Force*

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.

House Bill 8: Sexual Assault Kits

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.

  • Changes to "no limit" the statute of limitations on sexual assault in instances when either DNA testing on a kit has not yet been completed, or an unknown profile has been developed.
  • It also requires the preservation of a kit for no less than 40 years, or until the statute of limitations has expired, whichever is longer.
  • If evidence is to be destroyed, the victim must be notified.

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.

Key Appropriations Changes:

  1. The Texas Department of Public Services crime laboratory received more than $50 million to increase capacity and increase salaries to improve retention and hire 122 people over the next two years to help eliminate backlogs, especially of sexual assault kits. Some of this money will be used to pay other laboratories, including in Texas, that have capacity to do additional DNA analysis. It will also allocate $1.8 million to Sam Houston State University to assist with the training and onboarding of seized drugs and toxicology analysts.
  2. An audit of the disposition of sexual assault investigations in Texas police agencies has been funded through the State Auditor's Office. The Houston Police Department will be part of this audit.
  3. The University of North Texas has received $5 million to assist with the elimination of Texas' rape kit backlog and to help train and onboard additional DNA analysts. The language in this budget note is being adjusted to more clearly reflect the work that will be conducted.
  4. Funding for House Bill 1590 establishment of the "Sexual Assault Survivors Task Force" of $1.5 million is included.

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:

  1. $9 million for non-DNA equipment, instruments and other needs
  2. $250,000 for a statewide audit of the DNA database
  3. $2 million for a statewide lab efficiency study