Texas DPS Cancels Plan to Start Charging Local Agencies for Forensic Testing at Its Crime Labs

This story is developing. Check back for updates.The state's plan to start charging local law enforcement agencies for forensic testing has been rescinded. The fees were included in a rider in the state's biennial budget approved by lawmakers in May and signed by the governor in June. Last week, the Texas Department of Public Safety publicly announced a new fee schedule, sending police and sheriff's departments scrambling to find thousands of dollars in already tight budgets that are in the final stages of approval. On Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter to DPS director Steven McCraw asking that he retract his plan to start charging fees beginning Sept. 1. DPS officials sent out an email just before noon Friday referring to the governor's request and subsequent consent from legislative leadership. "DPS will continue to provide high quality expert analytical services to our law enforcement partners at no cost to these agencies," the email stated. Wise County Sheriff Lane Akin said he estimated the change would have cost his department between $60,000 to $100,000. He said he had been looking into charging DPS in return for any prisoners his troopers needed to house in his county jail. "It's only fair that we start charging them," he said. Plano City Manager Bruce Glasscock called the state's unfunded mandate for forensic testing a $240,000 hit to his city's budget. His staff hadn't had time to find a way to pay for the fees before the city council's budget meeting on Wednesday. "We are continually being squeezed and pressured on these issues," Glasscock told the council.On Thursday, eight lawmakers signed a letter delivered to the Legislative Budget Board asking whether funds could be moved around in the budget to cover the $11.5 million that DPS was directed to collect in fees. The letter cited the lack of transparency in charging fees for "what has become an increasingly critical component of modern law enforcement investigations." "This action will particularly impact the police departments and sheriffs that serve rural communities, as they lack local crime labs of their own and are limited in resources required to contract forensic services with a third party," according to the letter. Collin County District Attorney Greg Willis said the fees would have represented a fundamental shift in crime fighting in Texas. He estimated the changes would have cost his department $50,000 next year. Some places might opt not to pursue a case because they didn't have the budget to test for DNA or drugs, he said. "There would be a great disparity in the quality and caliber of prosecution depending on where the crime was committed," he said. The DPS crime lab fees have historically been free. The fee structure announced last week ranged from $75 for blood alcohol analysis in drunken driving cases to $550 for DNA tests.Abbott's letter stated that the legislature appropriated nearly $12 million less to DPS for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 than it did this year. "Whatever the Legislature's ultimate intent was for including Rider 58, I have no doubt that the Legislature did not intend to underfund DPS' crime lab."  Continue reading...

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