Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Identifies Standards for Determining if Laboratory Technician’s Mishandling of Evidence Renders Evidence False in Drug Cases

The discovery of professional misconduct by a crime lab technician resulted in widespread retesting of evidence by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) and multiple applications for habeas corpus by inmates convicted based on evidence handled by the technician. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals at first applied a presumption that tests conducted by the lab technician were unreliable and prejudicial to defendants’ cases. In January 2014, the court dropped the presumption of error in favor of a more generally applicable rule in Ex parte Coty, No. WR-79,318-02, opinion (Tex. Crim. App., Jan. 15, 2014). It applied a five-part test for a habeas corpus applicant to shift the burden to the state to prove that the technician did not engage in intentional misconduct
According to the court’s opinion, a technician at the Houston Police Department’s Crime Lab Division was found to have engaged in professional misconduct over a six-year period, including “dry labbing,” the process of using evidence from one case to support evidence in a different case. DPS determined that the technician had worked on nearly 5,000 cases at the crime lab, and that fifty to seventy-five percent of them had evidence that the state could retest. DPS retested evidence from a sample of cases, and estimated that only about two percent of the cases would require corrective action. It suspended the technician, who later resigned.

The Court of Criminal Appeals granted relief to habeas applicants in cases where the evidence was no longer available, holding that the technician’s misconduct violated the applicants’ due process rights. Ex parte Turner, 394 S.W.3d 513 (Tex. Crim. App. 2013). It later also granted relief to some applicants where evidence was still available for testing, finding that the technician’s test results were unreliable and therefore a due process violation, but remanding the applicant to the trial court. Ex parte Hobbs, 393 S.W.3d 780 (Tex. Crim. App. 2013).

Leroy Edward Coty pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance in 2011 and was sentenced to ten years in prison. The technician tested the evidence against him, which police had seized from his vehicle during a traffic stop, and determined that it was just under 500 grams of cocaine. Coty applied for habeas relief in March 2013, claiming that he was entitled to relief because the technician had sole custody of the evidence in his case.

The court granted the application and remanded the case for retesting of the evidence, but declined to continue to “presume both falsity and materiality simply based on [the technician’s] misconduct.” Coty, op. at 15. Instead, it applied a five-part test that would allow an applicant to shift the burden to the state to prove that the evidence is not false. The test incorporates many of the features of this particular technician’s situation, requiring proof that the technician (1) was a “state actor” (2) who “committed multiple instances of intentional misconduct” (3) of a type that “would have affected the evidence in the applicant’s case,” and (4) who personally worked on the applicant’s case (5) during the time the other misconduct occurred. Id. at 16. The applicant must still prove that the false evidence was material to the conviction.

Michael J. Brown is a board-certified criminal defense attorney who fights for the rights of Texas defendants. For over twenty years, he has worked to make certain that law enforcement and the courts abide by all of the criminal justice system’s rules and procedures. Please contact us today online or at (325) 574-2000 to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case.

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