Editor's note: This story has been updated to note that the Texas Department of Public Safety has agreed to change its plans to charge crime lab fees.
After outcry from local law enforcement and a request by Gov. Greg Abbott, the Texas Department of Public Safety announced Friday it would backtrack on its earlier plans to begin charging agencies for use of state crime labs.
On July 20, DPS shocked the law enforcement community by announcing in a letter that it would begin charging local agencies for the previously free use of state crime labs, which perform tests such as DWI and DNA testing. The department emphasized that the policy change was mandated by the Texas Legislature in the state’s budget, according to the letter.
"After being informed of Governor Abbott's decision, legislative leadership agreed. DPS will continue to provide high quality expert analytical services to our law enforcement partners at no cost to these agencies," the department said in a news release.
Abbott sent a letter to DPS Director Steven McCraw on Friday morning asking for the department to retract its previous announcement.
"DPS’ crime lab is vital to the public safety of Texas," Abbott said. “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.”
The 2018-19 Texas budget approved by legislators this year will remove almost $12 million from DPS’ annual budget to run the state crime labs, mostly used by smaller, rural law enforcement agencies that don’t have their own labs or funds to use private ones. To make up for the loss, a budget provision indicates the state can charge law enforcement agencies fees to conduct forensic testing up to the nearly $12 million and use that money for the labs.
In response, DPS planned to begin charging fees in September and put out a preliminary cost sheet for certain tests last week, with DNA analysis expected to cost $550 per case.
Abbott said the budget doesn’t mandate the collection of fees, however, and the nearly $63 million set aside for DPS forensic testing will “ensure the crime lab will operate at full capacity well into the next biennium.”
The announcement to begin charging local agencies last week outraged many small, rural law enforcement agencies that rely on the state for forensic testing. One North Texas sheriff announced he would begin charging DPS to house state prisoners in his county jail to make up for the costs, according to the Houston Chronicle.
State Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-McAllen, helped develop the budget provision and told the McAllen Monitor he was surprised by the reaction to DPS’ announcement. He said the provision was intended to help the state reduce its backlog of cases.
“[The DPS lab] should really only be used for major crimes like murder, homicide and aggravated robbery,” he told the Monitor. “But when we send Class A and Class B misdemeanors, we’re overburdening the [lab] technicians and it’s something that we have to remedy.”
Before Abbott’s announcement, several Texas House Democrats sent a letter to the Legislative Budget Board asking if some of DPS' $800 million in funding for border security could be reallocated to keep the state from charging local agencies for testing.
“We are concerned by the lack of transparency the Department has exhibited to local law enforcement over this decision. Prosecutors and sheriffs were not given adequate notice prior to the Department’s sudden assessment of a fee on what has become an increasingly critical component of modern law enforcement investigations,” wrote state Reps. Roland Gutierrez of San Antonio, Tracy King of Batesville, Sergio Muñoz of Palmview, Alfonso "Poncho" Nevárez of Eagle Pass, Mary González of Clint, César Blanco of El Paso, Terry Canales of Edinburg, and Justin Rodriguez of San Antonio Thursday.
On Friday, Gutierrez thanked the governor for his quick response.
"Had this fee been put in place, criminal investigations would have been compromised, making Texans less safe. This situation shows why it is so important to talk to sheriffs on the ground first, before making a decision that could delay murder cases," Gutierrez said in a statement.