Precinct 4's evidence destruction scandal part of larger pattern in constables' offices

Evidence-keeping sloppy in 4 of 8 constable's offices

September 25, 2016

With Harris County's Precinct 4 Constable's Office mired in scandal over the improper destruction of 21,000 pieces of evidence, serious evidence cataloging and control problems also have been uncovered in the constables' offices in Precincts 3,6 and 7, according to interviews and audits obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

While there is no proof yet that evidence has been unlawfully destroyed in those other three offices, 2,000 items were initially reported missing in Precinct 3; guns, jewelry, electronics and cash were misplaced in Precinct 6; and Precinct 7's evidence room has been described as "a shambles."

In Precinct 4, where the evidence destruction scandal is still unfolding, prosecutors so far have dismissed 100 criminal cases and are still determining how many convictions could be affected by years of careless work blamed on a corporal fired for illegally disposing of drugs, guns and evidence. The episode remains the subject of a criminal probe.

Only time will tell whether chaotic evidence handling practices reported in Precincts 3,6 and 7 will result in case dismissals, appeals or further investigations.

Harris County auditors in May 2015 uncovered evidence problems - never made public - in a review of the overstuffed property room inside the Precinct 6 Constable's Office in the East End. There, auditors reported finding 28 percent of the evidence missing along with $54,000 in cash in a review of a sample of 799 items, the audit shows. Their visit to the office came only months after the previous constable, Victor Treviño, resigned after pleading guilty to misappropriating money from a charity he ran out of his office.

DA notified

Constable Heliodoro Martinez, who replaced Treviño, said in an interview Friday that he immediately contacted the Harris County district attorney after receiving those results. It took five months for a team of two Harris County sheriff's deputies and two of his own officers to locate the missing cash and other items. Martinez said he is still trying to impose order in an evidence room that hadn't been cleaned out or organized in 26 years.

Unlike the Precinct 4 scandal, neither defense attorneys nor front-line prosecutors have been notified to review cases. So far, county lawyers have not deemed that any notifications or criminal investigations are necessary.

"To this point, we haven't been made aware of any pending cases that have been affected in any way, shape or form," Martinez said.

JoAnne Musick, a defense attorney who is past president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said she is skeptical that no cases have been adversely affected.

"Every property custodian comes in and testifies how great their system is - but in these audits that's not what they're finding," she said. "They're having to dig stuff up. … How do you know it's not been tampered with, it's not altered, it's not decayed?"

Harris County elected constables exist under a system set up during the days of the Old West that divided the county into areas that are now policed by large scattered agencies with dozens of officers and multimillion-dollar budgets. So far, four out of eight have reported property room problems. Those reports have county officials calling for reforms to evidence rooms - and to the county's own auditing process.

Under state law, the Harris County auditor, an independent official who is appointed by the Harris County district judges, has historically performed major audits of county officeholders only when those elected offices change hands - and no Harris County constable's evidence rooms had ever been audited before 2013, several county officials said.

Over the years, auditors employed a standard checklist to ensure whenever an office changes hands that no county computers, cars, EZ-tags or other equipment disappeared and that the bank balances in the constable's accounts matched other records. It was only in the last three years that auditors began to try to locate a test sample of items in county evidence rooms during those reviews, records show.

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Precinct 4's evidence destruction scandal part of larger pattern in constables' offices - Houston Chronicle

With Harris County's Precinct 4 Constable's Office mired in scandal over the improper destruction of 21,000 pieces of evidence, serious evidence cataloging and control problems also have been uncovered in the constables' offices in Precincts 3,6 and 7, according to interviews and audits obtained by the Houston Chronicle. While there is no proof yet that evidence has been unlawfully destroyed in those other three offices, 2,000 items were initially reported missing in Precinct 3; guns, jewelry, electronics and cash were misplaced in Precinct 6; and Precinct 7's evidence room has been described as "a shambles." In Precinct 4, where the evidence destruction scandal is still unfolding, prosecutors so far have dismissed 100 criminal cases and are still determining how many convictions could be affected by years of careless work blamed on a corporal fired for illegally disposing of drugs, guns and evidence. Harris County auditors in May 2015 uncovered evidence problems - never made public - in a review of the overstuffed property room inside the Precinct  6 Constable's Office in the East End. Under state law, the Harris County auditor, an independent official who is appointed by the Harris County district judges, has historically performed major audits of county officeholders only when those elected offices change hands - and no Harris County constable's evidence rooms had ever been audited before 2013, several county officials said. Over the years, auditors employed a standard checklist to ensure whenever an office changes hands that no county computers, cars, EZ-tags or other equipment disappeared and that the bank balances in the constable's accounts matched other records. On Thursday, the DA's office sent emails advising prosecutors and defense attorneys that Harris County auditors inspecting Precinct 7 in June found evidence there in shambles. County officials are routinely sent copies of the reports, but two chief district judges, the county judge and county commissioners told the Chronicle they were never made aware of major problems with missing evidence at any constable's offices until the problems at Precinct 4 became public in August. "In light of recent reports regarding missing and destroyed evidence in Harris County constables' offices, I believe it is more important than ever that the residents of Harris County have a fair, impartial and aggressive Harris County auditor to help detect and prevent such problems in the future," he said. County auditors, who are appointed by state district court judges, are key to ensuring that residents and county officials alike can be confident in the integrity of their county government. Cagle said he sees this as an opportunity to re-evaluate the county constable's evidence operations, improve the audit process and to consider creating an evidence room in the sheriff's office that would be a "gold standard." [...] neither agency has decided it was necessary to launch a criminal investigation or notify the public, defense attorneys or prosecutors about any of the problems uncovered, Martinez and others said.
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