Field Drug Tests: The $2 Tool That Can Destroy Lives

from the life-is-cheap dept

It only takes $2 and a few minutes to ruin someone’s life. Field tests for drugs are notoriously unreliable and yet they’re still considered to be evidence enough to deprive someone of their freedom and start a chain of events that could easily end in joblessness and/or homelessness.

Ryan Gabrielson and Topher Sanders — writing for the New York Times magazine — take a detailed look at these field tests, filtered through the experience of Amy Albritton, who spent 21 days in jail thanks to a false positive.

A traffic stop that resulted in a vehicle search turned up an empty syringe and a “suspicious” crumb of something on the floor. The field test said it was crack cocaine. Albritton was taken to a county jail where she spent the next three weeks after pleading guilty to possession, rather than face a trial and a possible sentence of two years.

The crumb of whatever had been sent on to a lab for verification, but with Albritton’s guilty plea, there was no hurry to ensure the substance retrieved from Albritton’s car was actually illegal. In fact, with the case adjudicated and closed, the evidence could simply have been destroyed. It wasn’t. Long after Albritton had been released, the substance was tested.

On Feb. 23, 2011 — five months after Albritton completed her sentence and returned home as a felon — one of Houston’s forensic scientists, Ahtavea Barker, pulled the envelope up to her bench. It contained the crumb, the powder and the still-unexplained syringe. First she weighed everything. The syringe had too little residue on it even to test. It was just a syringe. The remainder of the “white chunk substance” that Officer Helms had tested positive with his field kit as crack cocaine totaled 0.0134 grams, Barker wrote on the examination sheet, about the same as a tiny pinch of salt.

[…]

The powder was a combination of aspirin and caffeine — the ingredients in BC Powder, the over-the-counter painkiller, as Albritton had insisted.

[…]

The crumb’s fragmentation pattern did not match that of cocaine, or any other compound in the lab’s extensive database. It was not a drug. It did not contain anything mixed with drugs. It was a crumb — food debris, perhaps. Barker wrote “N.A.M.” on the spectrum printout, “no acceptable match,” and then added another set of letters: “N.C.S.” No controlled substance identified.

Albritton was innocent, but with a guilty plea, she now had a criminal record. And three weeks in jail turned her life upside down.

Albritton had managed the Frances Place Apartments, a well-maintained brick complex, for two years, and a free apartment was part of her compensation. But as far as the company knew, Albritton had abandoned her job and her home. She was fired, and her furniture and other belongings were put out on the side of the road. “So I lost all that,” she says.

[…]

Albritton gave up trying to convince people otherwise. She focused instead on Landon [her son]. Using a wheelchair, he needed regular sessions of physical and occupational therapy, and Albritton’s career managing the rental complex had been an ideal fit, providing a free home that kept her close to her son while she was at work, and allowing her the flexibility to ferry him to his appointments. But now, because of her new felony criminal record, which showed up immediately in background checks, she couldn’t even land an interview at another apartment complex. With a felony conviction, she couldn’t be approved as a renter either.

As the authors point out, 90% of jurisdictions will allow prosecutors to accept a guilty plea based on nothing more than highly-unreliable field test results. The test used in Albritton’s case contains a chemical that turns blue when exposed to cocaine. Unfortunately, it also turns blue when exposed to 80 other legal substances, including acne medicine and household cleaners.

The tests are about as accurate as you’d expect for a $2 test. Differences in ambient temperature can affect test results, as can the alteration of the order in which the three tubes in each test are used. A positive field test is still a long way from being a credible indication of an illegal substance.

In Las Vegas, authorities re-examined a sampling of cocaine field tests conducted between 2010 and 2013 and found that 33 percent of them were false positives. Data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement lab system show that 21 percent of evidence that the police listed as methamphetamine after identifying it was not methamphetamine, and half of those false positives were not any kind of illegal drug at all. In one notable Florida episode, Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies produced 15 false positives for methamphetamine in the first seven months of 2014.

But they’re just good enough to destroy lives.

Fortunately, the article reports a few positive developments. Some people who have pled guilty to possession charges based on field tests have had their convictions overturned when lab tests come back clean. This is after the fact — sometimes years after the fact — so it does little to undo the damage already done.

In addition to only allowing someone who’s life has been drastically altered to maybe finally make some forward progress, this sort of thing is limited only to those jurisdictions where crime labs are required to test every incoming sample, whether or not a conviction has already been obtained. Very few labs have this requirement. The standard M.O. is to simply destroy “unneeded” evidence if the case has been closed.

The most immediate fix would be to discard the faulty tests and develop something far more precise for field testing. But until that occurs, it seems unlikely law enforcement will abandon a product that allows officers to develop probable cause for drug possession arrests. A more immediate route towards ensuring few wrongful convictions would be to institute a requirement that all field-tested substances be tested by a lab before the prosecution can move forward. Otherwise, the system is basically convicting people on suspicion, rather than actual guilt.

In the county where Albritton was arrested, this change has been made.

Last year, Devon Anderson, the current Harris County district attorney, prohibited plea deals in drug-possession cases before the lab has issued a report.

That’s still not enough to prevent the accused’s world from falling apart while waiting for a lab test.

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.

But it’s still better than the alternative: doing nothing. Since this policy was implemented, dismissals are up 31% in the county, thanks to lab tests showing substances seized were not illegal.

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Comments on “Field Drug Tests: The $2 Tool That Can Destroy Lives”

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49 Comments
David says:

Re: Re: Stop the war on drug users.

Well, that’s the point: criminalizing possession of small amounts of chemicals makes it all too easy to frame people. Imagine you’d get booked for murder whenever traces of blood can be found in your car. Or for poaching if hairs could be found in your car. Or for rape if traces of semen can be found. Have policemen stop you, sniff and state “I think I smell lion piss” and have you booked for years because you had sweaty socks under your car seats.

While such things may turn up as evidence in an ongoing investigation with actual reasons for suspicion, they would be totally ridiculous for a normal road stop. And that’s just not the case with the search for controlled substances.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Stop the war on drug users.

I think the issue is that they need to overcriminalize everything to justify having all these police officers. Without so much crime why do we need so much law enforcement? Let’s make everything a crime …. now all these police officers have purpose and get to keep their jobs.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Stop the war on drug users.

For all the times that cops were caught on video doing something wrong and lied about it just imagine how many times they got away with it only because there wasn’t any video footage despite there being enough evidence to convict a normal citizen had a proper independent investigation taken place. This double standard nonsense needs to change. Cops should be held to a higher, not a lower, standard than the rest of us.

Anonymous Coward says:

The problem is not the test but criminalizing drug users.

What’s the problem if a productive member of society uses drugs once or twice a month?

Arresting those people does not make the country safer and wastes valuable police time that could have been spent chasing thieves, rapists, murderers and other violent criminals.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: So the old TV cop shows had it right.

Because the manufacturer does not claim that their test is specific for cocaine. There are hundreds of analytical tests like this on market, testing for everything from cocaine to IgGs to insulin to methanol. They are designed for lab environments where people understand basic science. It’s the police and justice department that are willfully blind to what they are using.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: So the old TV cop shows had it right.

…I took a glance at your link. Just quickly skimming the documentation I found 3 different warnings that this test is just for obtaining probable cause and that it does not provide either specificity or purity.

And that’s in the non-technical documentation they provide for untrained field testers. There would also be technical documentation included with your order providing the validation data.

Nice try though.

Jessie (profile) says:

I teach a forensics lab every year, and the first lab I do is a Scott’s test to test for cocaine, which is likely the test performed here. One of the possible unknowns I give them is a sample of Diphenhydramine, aka Benedryl, which shows a positive similar to cocaine. We then later perform tests of increasing specificity specifically to show that screening tests are just that, screening. I then break into a lecture of how important their jobs will be and that they have to remember, while their jobs will seem routine and boring after a while, that everything they do will have consequences for people’s lives and freedoms.

Perhaps some of these people need to take my class.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

[…]that everything they do will have consequences for people’s lives and freedoms.

Other people’s lives. Other people’s freedoms.

The sad thing is, this very thing that your quite understandably place classroom emphasis on (given the present system of inordinate cop-privilege) is the very thing that ensures cops will continue to neglect its importance in practice.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Can you please expand on your comments? (and thanks for posting them)

Are you saying that the field test result is similar enough that Benedryl is going to get arrested every single time?

or.

Is it similar enough that if someone is not paying attention they wont spot the differences?

Jessie (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I can’t comment on if anyone will get arrested on a positive test, false or otherwise. What the Scott’s test is, however, is a general chemical reaction. Multiple different compounds can cause similar reactions. That’s why this test is meant to be a screening test, ie is it worth pursuing for the more expensive but more specific lab tests?

However, it appears that in the interest of saving money, time and perhaps increasing win ratio’s prosecutors are pushing defendants to plead only on that info. I have no problem with police officers trained to use the kits performing the test in the field as intended. The problem arises when perhaps untrained or under trained officers use these tests for trace evidence, and/or the results being treated as gospel.

As for the results of the test, it is a 3 step process, with potentially different colors at each step. Diphenhydramine will give similar first and last steps, but a somewhat different third step. It’s similar enough that only but a few of my students have ever caught it, as they tend to focus on the more vibrant first and last step. I chose it on purpose for that reason, so that the ultimate lesson will hit home, hopefully. I just use this as an example, as there are multiple compounds that can either yield a false positive or be interpreted as a false positive.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“The problem arises when perhaps untrained or under trained officers use these tests for trace evidence, and/or the results being treated as gospel.”

Another, perhaps larger, aspect of the problem is that the test is given when the cop has already decided the person is guilty and is just looking for some sort of confirmation of that guilt. They are not interested in the accuracy of the test, they are interested in a pretext for arrest.

Anonymous Coward says:

is there anything more important in the USA than getting people convicted, even if totally innocent and the evidence is non-existent, and then jailed so that their lives are completely ruined? the alternative atm is even worse, ie, being killed in a police stop for absolutely no reason at all, allow the officer to have weeks, if not months of paid leave while the ‘case is investigated’, then return to work with a heroes welcome and the family of the dead victim just thrown aside like they were trash!! things need to change drastically in America and damn soon too!!

Anonymous Coward says:

It takes way more evidence to convict an on duty police officer of a crime than it does to convict a regular citizens. For example people have been convicted of crimes or coerced to accept trumped up charges without video footage of them committing any crime (an example here). Name me one example of an on duty LEO being convicted of a crime with an absence of unambiguous video footage showing them to be guilty. Even with good video footage it’s sometimes darn near impossible to convict a cop.

Cops are held to a much lower standard than the rest of us when the opposite should be true. Any citizen can be convicted of a crime or coerced to take trumped up charges on a whim with almost no good evidence. It’s nearly impossible to convict a cop of anything.

Anonymous Coward says:

Three *weeks* to see a judge??

I know that “speedy trial” et al. is just a dead letter now, but that is nuts. Three weeks of incarceration before she even gets to make a claim that the arrest was wrong is a sign of severe problems in the justice system. Even if she had been released as innocent at that point, it’s way too late. In my opinion, the arrestee ought to be given a meaningful appearance in front of a judge in time not to exceed the minimum time to file a “Missing persons” report. In most jurisdictions, the police are not interested in Missing Person reports until the person has been missing for at least 24 hours. Under my standard, if you had at least minimal staff support over weekends, you could still keep to “business hours” and always process arrestees within the 24 hour window. Any arrestee accused of a nonviolent crime goes free at the end of 24 hours unless that arrestee had a meaningful appearance before a judge and the judge ruled otherwise.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Let me guess she assumed since she had nothing to hide that pleading guilty would somehow prove her innocent?

Good lawyers cost money. Money that most folks don’t have lying around. Sometimes it is easier to take the fall and do the time, even when you are innocent, instead of dealing with the expense and the effort to prove yourself innocent (which isn’t the way it should be.) It is unfortunately how the justice system has been corrupted to work, it is often easier taking the plea even though you’re innocent than fighting it. If you can get the prosecutor to agree to allow you to walk with time served for a first offense, that guilty plea on a felony may not look all that bad since it gets the trouble to go away (and most of those folks are looking at a justice system already stacked against them and looking for the easiest way out.)

Jon Oliver’s take…

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Since money seems to be a recurring aspect of justice, I wonder what justice would look like if the government was required to pay for both the prosecution and the defense, in equal amounts. Whatever the prosecution spends is made available to the defense. The defender chosen by the accused, but paid for by the government?

Hmm, would such a system make lawyers cheaper, for both sides?

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The defender chosen by the accused, but paid for by the government?

That may work, though I suspect it will become just like the public defender’s office currently is. There are some really awesome public defenders, but there are many examples of public defenders that don’t have the best interests of their clients in mind and convince them to take a plea even when their innocent, or who sleep during court, or sell out their clients to the prosecution in order to make brownie points (see Last Week Tonight link above…) Of course, having the defender chosen by the accused would make things better overall, it could also open up more abuse. Certainly, having the system pay for the defense up until the defendant is found guilty would make the system work better…but to do that, the methods used to find the defendant guilty must be more rock-solid than it currently is. The voodoo science has got to go…I suspect the prosecutor in this case came up and told the defendant “we found drugs in your car, and we have this $2 drug test that confirmed it, and you’d be better off coping to this plea agreement than fighting it in court,” when a good attorney would caution the defendant that the $2 test has a lot of false positives and they are innocent and should get their day in court to prove it (they shouldn’t have to…the prosecutor should have to prove it was illegal drugs found in the car.)

Unfortunately, I don’t know how to fix the problem, but I do know that the system as it exists now isn’t the best it can be. It certainly makes it far more difficult for those without money.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

The difference between my thought and the current system is that public defenders are funded differently in every state and some states don’t do a good job at funding them, and some states do a horrible job. My thought suggests that governments would need to fund justice and then spit it down the middle, half for defense and half for prosecution. If the prosecutors need more money, then defense automatically gets more money. It would also fund ALL defenses, not just those who might be indigent. I would also limit it to criminal rather than civil cases.

Doing this on a case by case basis might be unwieldy.

None of that is to say that there won’t be other problems, but it might remove the money issue.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

The other thing I’d do is guarantee compensation for any harm done by the criminal investigation process (interestingly the Stasi theoretically offered compensation for damage done by searches, although naturally no-one ever asked for it).

I would compensate the guilty as well as the innocent (except for time spent detained unless the sentence was less than time served), to avoid any problems along the lines of “sorry we smashed in your door, killed your dog, shredded your clothes, and locked you up for years, but you committed disorderly conduct by swearing at the police so no compensation for you”. That compensation should be paid before any fines or civil liabilities to victims, but fines should be raised proportionally to be revenue-neutral.

John85851 (profile) says:

False positives is a feature, not a bug

Why do I get the feeling that these screening systems are almost designed to have false positives?
Combine thid with overzealous prosecutors who have to “do something” about drugs, especially in poor African-American areas.
They can threaten people with 2 years in a jail based on the false positive, or offer a plea bargain for only 3 months. Many people will take the plea bargain since they may not have the resources to fight.
Then so what if someone’s life is ruined- the prosecutor gets another “win”.

It’s interesting how these tests always seem to favor law-enforcement. Would they use this same test if the stats were reversed and the tests returned false negatives 33% of the time, meaning the testing process said the substance was sugar, but it was really cocaine?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: False positives is a feature, not a bug

Why do I get the feeling that these screening systems are almost designed to have false positives?

…because that’s how chemistry works. The more specificity you desire, the more complicated and expensive the test is to run. These tests exist in industry to test materials from known processes and screen (but not analyze) unknown processes. The police are willfully ignoring that fact.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

A Crumb?

I wonder that a crumb of a suspected substance was sufficient to NOT offer her a low bail until the ‘evidence’ was found via a proper chemical test to be what it was alleged to be. I can imagine the cop and the DA trying to figure out how it could be evidence of sufficient weight for sale.

Drug wars…can’t beat em…can’t join em…can’t get out from under em…can’t win it…can’t find a way to stop it…but the for profit prisons are doing very well on Wall Street.

Whatever says:

Re: A Crumb?

I had the same opinion. Reading the story here (and at the Times) made me think that there is a whole lot more to this story that just isn’t being told.

First off, such a small amount of a drug should lead to an arrest, if it’s illegal. But that arrest should lead to bail, not three weeks of incarceration. We are left to fill in an incredibly huge blank here.Having a lawyer that is pushing for her to take the deal rather than fight it seems pretty weird too, considering the lawyer SHOULD know that the $2 test isn’t always accurate.

The story reads more like “sweatshop law” rather than anything to do with a defective drug test. It would seem that the lawyer and the police were on he same team.

When you reconsider the story in that manner, you start to understand better. Officers trained to believe a test is absolute proof, a lawyer who does nothing to correct them, and as a team they can crow about their huge numbers of drug arrests and convictions.

The $2 drug test isn’t a big deal here, except that the results are being misrepresented as “absolute proof” when they are at best a “strong indicator”. I think they should still be enough for an arrest, but should also be something that leads to an insanely low bail, or even a ROR with a future court date, especially when talking about such a small amount of “drugs” seized.

I don’t feel any particular sympathy for the girl. Yes, it sucks, but yes, the story also provides enough details to suggest that she made a series of pretty solid errors along the way and pretty much opened herself up for what looks like an arrest mill operation.

Can anyone explain why there was no bail on the table? I am thinking there is more to this than meets the eye.

Justme says:

Insanity...

The level of commitment law enforcement has to the war on drugs in easily understandable, it is easily then most successful jobs program in history!

However it is a complete failure by any other measure and what most people fail to understand is that it does negatively impacted the lives of every citizen and to a greater extent then the problem it was intended to fix.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Insanity...

However it is a complete failure by any other measure and what most people fail to understand is that it does negatively impacted the lives of every citizen and to a greater extent then the problem it was intended to fix.

I think you’re right, and most people don’t realize that the main issues with illegal drugs – violence and other crime, and incarceration – are due to the “illegal” part, not the “drug” part.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The real problem

Agreed. Innocence until proven guilty should imply there is no punishment until you are proven guilty. Taking someone away from their normal activities (work, play, rest, etc…) until their case has been adjudicated is punishment and hence is a presumption of guilt until proven innocent.

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