Lawsuit against county by former crime lab supervisor partially reinstated

It’s a bit of a convoluted story.

A federal appeals court has reinstated portions of a lawsuit filed by two former Houston Police Department crime lab supervisors who contended that Harris County prosecutors retaliated against them after they exposed problems with the city’s breath-alcohol testing vans, or “BAT vans.”

In a 36-page opinion issued on Monday, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals remanded some claims asserted in the 2012 lawsuit filed by Amanda Culbertson and Jorge Wong back to a Houston federal trial court.

Most of the original lawsuit, which was largely dismissed on the pleadings before any substantial discovery such as depositions, now returns to U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes for further consideration and a possible trial.


The original lawsuit alleged that the lab supervisors lost their jobs after raising concerns about the reliability of tests conducted by HPD’s breath-alcohol testing vehicles because of a retaliatory campaign by then-Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos and Assistant District Attorney Rachel Palmer.

Houston began using the mobile instruments in 2008. By mid-2009, Culbertson began to notice temperature and electrical irregularities with vans that could influence the integrity of tests, the lawsuit said. Culbertson and Wong expressed concerns about problems that could have led to test inaccuracies into early 2011.

In May 2011, Culbertson testified in a trial that she could not verify that an instrument had been working during a test. She testified in a July 2011 case that she could not trust the accuracy of a van analysis.

That same month, Palmer wrote a memo to a supervisor in which she concluded that Culbertson “could not be trusted to testify in any breath test” and that she was “gravely concerned” about Culbertson’s ability to “testify fairly” in the future.

See here for the background. Culbertson and Wong then resigned from HPD and went to work for Lone Star College, which at the time had a contract with Harris County to supervise breath-alcohol testing for the Sheriff’s office. That contract then got terminated, Culbertson and Wong got fired, and the lawsuit was filed. The Fifth Circuit determined that Judge Hughes erred in dismissing the suit against the county (former DA Lykos settled in 2013 and is no longer a party to the litigation), so back to district court it goes. I don’t have anything clever to say about it, it’s just that this was a nasty little piece of business when it happened, and it serves as a reminder that not all of the problems with the HPD crime lab were the city’s responsibility. I’d guess that a settlement of the lawsuit is the most likely outcome at this point, but we’ll see. Hair Balls has a lot more details, as well as a copy of the Fifth Circuit’s decision, so go read that story if you’re still confused.

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