How a $2 Roadside Drug Test Sends Innocent People to Jail

Widespread evidence shows that these tests routinely produce false positives. Why are police departments and prosecutors across the country still using them?

*Editor: A very well written article by the New York Times Magazine detailing the plight of people caught up in this nightmare of false arrests and unjust imprisonment. Several excerpts below..

JULY 7, 2016

..Helms spotted a white crumb on the floor. In the report, Nguyen wrote that the officers believed the crumb was crack cocaine. They handcuffed Wilson and Albritton and stood them in front of the patrol car, its lights still flashing. They were on display for rush-hour traffic, criminal suspects sweating through their clothes in the 93-degree heat.

…At the police academy four years earlier, Helms was taught that to make a drug arrest on the street, an officer needed to conduct an elementary chemical test, right then and there. It’s what cops routinely do across the country every day while making thousands upon thousands of drug arrests.

Helms popped the trunk of his patrol car, pulled out a small plastic pouch that contained a vial of pink liquid and returned to Albritton. He opened the lid on the vial and dropped a tiny piece of the crumb into the liquid. If the liquid remained pink, that would rule out the presence of cocaine. If it turned blue, then Albritton, as the owner of the car, could become a felony defendant.

Helms waved the vial in front of her face and said, “You’re busted.”

Albritton was booked into the Harris County jail at 3:37 a.m., nine hours after she was arrested.

..Police officers arrest more than 1.2 million people a year in the United States on charges of illegal drug possession. Field tests like the one Officer Helms used in front of Amy Albritton help them move quickly from suspicion to conviction. But the kits — which cost about $2 each and have changed little since 1973 — are far from reliable.

The field tests seem simple, but a lot can go wrong. Some tests, including the one the Houston police officers used to analyze the crumb on the floor of Albritton’s car, use a single tube of a chemical called cobalt thiocyanate, which turns blue when it is exposed to cocaine. But cobalt thiocyanate also turns blue when it is exposed to more than 80 other compounds, including methadone, certain acne medications and several common household cleaners. Other tests use three tubes, which the officer can break in a specific order to rule out everything but the drug in question — but if the officer breaks the tubes in the wrong order, that, too, can invalidate the results.

The environment can also present problems. Cold weather slows the color development; heat speeds it up, or sometimes prevents a color reaction from taking place at all. Poor lighting on the street — flashing police lights, sun glare, street lamps — often prevents officers from making the fine distinctions that could make the difference between an arrest and a release.

..The labs issue reports in about two weeks, but defendants typically wait three weeks before they can see a judge — enough time to lose a job, lose an apartment, lose everything. And yet since Anderson implemented the rule, case dismissals have soared 31 percent, primarily because the lab has proved defendants not guilty.

People plead guilty when they’re innocent because they see no alternative. People who have just been arrested usually don’t know their options, or even that they have an option.

Read the entire article… New York Times Magazine

Source: How a $2 Roadside Drug Test Sends Innocent People to Jail