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Bay Area Criminal Defense Blog

Unreliable Field Drug Tests Sending Innocent People to Jail

Posted by Lynn Gorelick | Jul 08, 2016 | 0 Comments

When the police find some unknown substance in an individual's pocket, they may test to see whether that substance is an illegal drug. They may use a field drug kit, adding the substance to a pouch and shaking it up to reveal an illegal narcotic. Prosecutors use this evidence to make the suspect accept a plea deal. However, these field drug tests are extremely unreliable, and may be responsible for sending thousands of innocent people to jail.

According to a new report from ProPublica, “Tens of thousands of people every year are sent to jail based on the results of a $2 roadside drug test. Widespread evidence shows that these tests routinely produce false positives.”

The article tells the typical story of an innocent person charged with drug possession. Police found a crumb in Amy Albritton's car. They placed the crumb in a vial of pink liquid, and when the liquid turned blue, the officer arrested Albritton for possession of cocaine. When she met with her public defender, she proclaimed her innocence, but her public defender was very rushed. Her lawyer said she should take the deal because the test proved she had crack cocaine in her car. She gave in, and plead guilty, despite her innocence.

While police rely on these $2 tests to arrest suspects on drug charges, these tests can show false positives for a number of other chemicals besides drugs. Some tests use cobalt thiocyanate, which turns blue when it comes into contact with cocaine. However, there are more than 80 other compounds which can also make the chemical turn blue, include acne medication, laundry detergent, and bathroom cleaners.

Another problem with these tests is that they rely on the officer's subjective observations. This can be complicated by flashing police lights, using a flashlight at night, passing headlights, yellow street lights, and the glare from the sun. However, police still rely on their observations of these faulty tests to give them reason to arrest a suspect.

When the City of Las Vegas decided to retest cocaine field tests from 2010 to 2013, they found that 33% of the tests were false positives. A Florida law enforcement drug lab retested samples that had tested positive in field tests for methamphetamine. They found that more than 20% of the tests were not methamphetamines. Another Florida investigation found that many police officers did not understand which colors indicated positive or negative for certain drugs.

While these field tests are unreliable and inadmissible at trial, most suspects plead guilty before their case ever goes to trial. After they are arrested, their public defender offers a choice of two terrible options. Accept a plea deal, and serve a small sentence, or risk years in jail. Many defendants are frightened enough at the prospect of spending years behind bars to admit their guilt, even if they know they are innocent.

In the example above, after Albritton pleaded guilty to possession, she served a 21-day sentence in jail, lost her job, lost her apartment, and struggled to find employment as a drug felon. When the suspected crack cocaine was retested by a certified lab, it was determined to be a food particle, with no controlled substance identified.

At the Gorelick Law Offices, attorney Lynn Gorelick has dedicated her legal career to defending people facing criminal charges in the East Bay. With more than 30 years of experience, Lynn Gorelick understands the consequences of a drug conviction, and will make sure you get the justice you deserve. Contact the local East Bay criminal defense attorney who understands that you do not have to plead guilty just because you were arrested.

About the Author

Lynn Gorelick

Lynn Gorelick has been an attorney for 30 years. She is the Attorney Lynn Gorelick is the President of the California DUI Lawyers Association and a Faculty and Sustaining member of the National College of DUI Defense.

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