Fees abandoned: DPS drops plan to charge for crime lab services after backlash

McALLEN — The Texas Department of Public Safety will not go through with its plan to charge law enforcement agencies for forensic analysis services performed by its crime labs, the department announced Friday.

The decision comes after backlash from law enforcement agencies across the state to a July 20 letter from DPS Director Steven McCraw announcing that lab work would come at a cost beginning Sept. 1.

Agencies found themselves scrambling to find room for thousands of dollars in their budgets, as DPS lab services have historically come at no cost.

Gov. Greg Abbott sent McCraw a letter Friday morning asking him to retract the July 20 letter because “it is premature to charge a fee at this time.”

Rider 58, a provision the House Budget Conference Committee attached to the 2018-19 state budget, authorized DPS to collect up to $11.5 million from fees for forensic analysis services. The fees were designed to make up for the nearly $12 million lawmakers cut from DPS’ annual budget to run its 13 crime labs.

Abbott said the budget provision did not mandate the collection of fees and that the $63 million the rider set aside from General Revenue Funds for the DPS crime lab would “ensure the crime lab will operate at full capacity well into the next biennium.”

“DPS’ crime lab is vital to the public safety of Texas,” Abbott’s letter read. “Under no circumstances will I allow the 13 crime labs that DPS operates across the state to be underfunded.”

DPS notified law enforcement of the change via email around noon Friday.

“Thanks to the bipartisan efforts of Governor Abbott and Texas lawmakers we can be assured that our partnership with the DPS Crime Lab will be business as usual,” wrote Hidalgo County Sheriff J.E. “Eddie” Guerra in a statement. “It was unfortunate that a poorly thought out unfunded mandate (Rider 58) by a legislative committee was the cause for all this trouble.”

Guerra estimated the change would have cost the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office one-quarter million dollars annually as it does not have its own lab.

“Obviously we don’t have this money,” he said.

State Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission — one of the five members of the the conference committe — said he was surprised by the reaction to DPS’ announcement because the provision was intended to help reduce the department’s caseload backlog to make it more “efficient.”

“You’re going to have an issue when everyone sends stuff (to the lab) — you’re naturally going to have a backlog,” Longoria said.

DPS averaged 87,642 testing requests from 2,310 law enforcement agencies in 2013 and 2014, according to a January Legislative Budget Board Staff Report.

“(The DPS lab) should really only be used for major crimes like murder, homicide and aggravated robbery,” Longoria said. “But when we send Class A and Class B misdemeanors, we’re overburdening the (lab) technicians.”

Guerra said HCSO frequently uses field testing on suspected controlled substances and only sends samples to DPS for analysis when an individual does not plead guilty to possession. 

Longoria did not consult law enforcement prior to the committee’s drafting of the rider and said he did not know whether Rio Grande Valley law enforcement had crime labs of their own.

None of the 38 law enforcement agencies throughout the Valley that had initially scheduled a July 27 news conference to express their concerns over the fees have their own labs.

The event was postponed indefinitely following “recent information from Austin addressing (their) concerns,” according to a news release.

“I don’t understand how it became such a big issue,” Longoria said. “(The provision) had no malice to it — it’s trying to take care of something really important.”

Longoria said lawmakers would work with DPS, law enforcement agencies and district attorneys to find a way to reduce DPS’ backlog before the next legislative session.