At the end of July, the Texas Department of Public Safety issued a policy change that blindsided many local law enforcement agencies.
The letter the department sent out notified local law enforcement agencies that DPS was directed by the legislature to collect over $11 million in fees for their crime lab tests. DPS operates crime labs across the state that test specimens and evidence from local agencies at no cost to them. To generate the $11 million in revenue, DPS planned to begin charging for forensic analysis on “controlled substances, toxicology, DNA evidence submissions and biological specimens to detect the presence of alcohol.”
Prices listed in the department’s directive included $550 for DNA analysis, $150 for toxicology, and $75 for alcohol or controlled substance testing. With the number of tests that local agencies require on a regular basis, they were concerned about the impact of these costs on their budgets.
“To say that we, the local law enforcement agencies, were shocked when we received news of the new fees associated with DPS testing is an understatement. This financial hardship blindsided us and left us scrambling to figure out how we were going to cover the cost at such short notice,” Midland County District Attorney Laura Nodolf told Restore Justice USA. “Without the Governor’s response, local law enforcement agencies would have had to make a charging decision based on potential financial liability, rather than what is lawful and just.”
The response Nodolf referenced came in the form of a letter from Gov. Greg Abbott to DPS Director Steven McGraw.
“Under no circumstances will I allow the 13 crime labs that DPS operates across the state to be underfunded. However, I firmly believe it is premature to charge a fee at this time,” read Abbott’s letter. “Although a fee is authorized by statute, a proper reading of Rider 58 [the statute permitting the fees] does not mandate that DPS charge a fee for the use of its crime lab services.”
The dust-up came from the 2018-2019 state budget, which reduces the DPS budget by $12 million. To ensure that the department’s labs remained funded, legislators allowed them to assess fees to agencies who utilize their crime lab services.
When the change was announced, law enforcement leaders from across the state spoke up about what impact these fees would have on their departments. Many larger departments have their own, or share crime labs, but most smaller agencies have to utilize the DPS crime labs. Luckily, for the time being these smaller agencies will still have cost effective access to DPS crime labs, allowing them to base testing decisions on the merits of a case rather than the financial hardship they will face for crime lab tests.