- Associated Press - Thursday, October 20, 2016

HOUSTON (AP) - More than 4,200 cases might have been impacted after a sprinkler malfunctioned in a Houston Police Department property room freezer used to store biological evidence, according to the head of the local criminal lawyers association.

But Houston Acting Police Chief Martha Montalvo said Thursday that she’s hopeful that little if any evidence was compromised.

Officials said they were still determining how many pieces of evidence might have incurred water damage during Tuesday’s sprinkler mishap in the walk-in freezer.

The freezer contains 15,000 pieces of evidence, but Montalvo says the sprinkler sent water only onto one row of shelving containing boxes. Mostly biological evidence - including DNA and blood evidence - from a variety of cases was stored in the freezer.

Montalvo said she was confident that methods used to store evidence would minimize any potential damage.

“I’m very optimistic though. Again there’s a process as to how this evidence is packaged. There’s a lot of packaging that goes into evidence,” she said.

But Tyler Flood, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said 350 notices have already been sent to local defense attorneys by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office telling them that their cases might have been impacted by the sprinkler mishap.

Flood said that prosecutors in court on Thursday indicated that possibly more than 4,200 cases might have been affected.

“So the number is kind of up in the air,” he said. “Nobody knows the number of cases that are affected yet. I know it’s an administrative nightmare for the DA’s office.”

Jeff McShan, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, confirmed that notices were emailed to defense attorneys but he declined to comment on how many cases might have been impacted.

The sprinkler mishap comes amid recent criticism of several local law enforcement agencies for management of their evidence rooms.

Audits and ongoing reviews have found problems with how evidence is handled and stored at four of the eight constable’s offices that serve the Houston-area.

In the most serious of these cases, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office continues investigating the destruction by a deputy constable with the county’s Precinct 4 Constable’s Office of thousands of pieces of evidence in Houston-area cases.

“This is really random coincidence that we’ve got all of these evidence issues going on, for different reasons though, but all at the same time,” Flood said. “In the 15 years that I’ve been doing this, not only have I never seen anything like this, I’ve never heard of anything like this anywhere in the country.”

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70

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