Unreliable Science in Texas DWI/DUI Convictions

The Texas Department of Public Safety reports nearly 90,000 charges of drunk driving within the state in 2021. Regrettably, these charges may be backed with evidence produced by poor scientific analysis. Specifically, Medusa Analytical, which has reviewed multiple blood alcohol reports, has discovered systemic issues concerning how specimens are collected and analyzed.

Drinking and driving should not be tolerated, and those accused should be investigated using reliable, validated forensic methods, which, to our dismay, does not often happen in Texas. Many public and private forensic labs, including the so-called crime labs, fail to adhere to recognized best practices or standards set by forensic science authorities. Regrettably, such shortcomings become evident in the practices adopted by Texas crime labs.

The issue starts with sample collection, as the goal is to collect an accurate representative sample. If not analyzed right away, they should be refrigerated, which crime labs commonly do upon receiving them. However, they usually receive the samples a week or two following their collection, and how they are stored during this period often lacks documentation.

Substandard sample collection and preservation play a significant role, however, there’s more. The common technique for measuring alcohol content in a blood sample, headscape gas chromatography, requires proper calibration to deliver accurate results. It’s disconcerting that Texas crime labs often go for an apples-to-oranges comparison, preparing these calibration samples in salt water instead of blood.

The complexity of blood as a matrix is recognized by seasoned analytical scientists, the American National Standards Institute, and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, which accredit most Texas crime labs. These bodies have set published standards that Texas crime labs tend to overlook, dealing instead with saltwater-based solutions. This, coupled with the lack of Texas regulations requiring their adherence, leaves room for inaccuracies in crime lab measurements.

A crucial reform is necessary in the law enforcement and crime lab practices in Texas. Citizens should not face prosecution based on subpar scientific investigation. Making such a change is an easily attainable goal.

The views expressed in this article were from Kevin A. Schug, Ph.D., a partner at Medusa Analytical and professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Texas at Arlington, and Zacariah Hildenbrand, Ph.D., a partner in Medusa Analytical.

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