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Sally G. Goodman

Police use drug identification tests with high margins of error

The New York Times recently covered a story about a Georgia woman who spent three months in jail after police pulled her boyfriend over and misidentified melted cotton candy for methamphetamine. This situation highlights an ongoing problem: field drug identification test errors. It is for this reason that you should not rush to accept a plea deal if accused of drug possession charges. Police have misidentified chocolate chip cookies, tortillas, breath mints, and Tylenol as illegal drugs. If the substance is not verified in a laboratory setting, you could be living with a felony conviction for a crime you did not commit.

The Georgia woman was held in county jail on $1 million bail after police used a roadside drug test manufactured by the company Sirchie. The test turned blue, erroneously giving a positive result for meth. The State Crime Lab later tested the substance which showed it was indeed cotton candy, and the charges against her were dropped. The woman is suing the County Commissioners, the test manufacturer, Sirchie, and three police deputies.

Roadside drug tests are often erroneous

A 2016 newspiece shows this problem is widespread, and Texas cities use these same tests to convict people of drug possession. The problem is that most people panic and take a plea deal before the crime lab has verified the roadside test results. Once you accept a plea deal, the alleged controlled substance will not be tested, meaning you could be living with consequences of a drug conviction for a crime you never committed.

Chemical in test kit is not reliable

The reagent in the roadside tests used by Houston police in the 2016 story is cobalt thiocyanate, which will turn blue when mixed with cocaine. The problem is that the compound also reacts and turns blue when it is exposed to over eighty other substances. Other tests that officers use have a series of tubes that need to be broken in a specific order, but when officers fail to do so, false positives will be given.  

Police are not chemists

Chemists are familiar with the many conditions that can cause incorrect results. As in the lab, environmental conditions such as heat or cold can skew the reaction. But what magnifies the problem is that officers are inadequately trained on the kits, including the risk of error or false positives, or even what is considered a positive result. In 2014, Florida police had fifteen false positives for methamphetamine when the officers misunderstood the manufacturer’s directions and mixed up the negative result with the positive.

Many prosecutors accept guilty pleas based solely on the result of roadside tests

Prosecutors throughout the country accept guilty pleas from defendants based exclusively on the results of these problematic roadside tests. Despite guidelines issued from the U.S. Justice Department back in 2000 that directed test kit manufacturers to print warning labels to bring attention to the risk of error and false positives, none of three major companies providing these kits are doing so. State labs rarely tell officers when there is a false positive, so police hold a false belief that such tests are highly accurate.

Question, and obtain repeatable results

Forensic chemists protect the public from false convictions. Take it upon yourself to question the results of tests used by police, who are not chemists, and encourage your attorney to be skeptical of the processes used to collect, handle, and analyze evidence.

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