Prosecutors Looking Into $2 Field Drug Tests After Investigation, Figure Defense Attorneys Should Do All The Work
from the THIS-NEEDS-TO-BE-FIXED...-by-other-people dept
The fallout from cheap field drug tests continues. The lab that does actual testing of seized substances for the Las Vegas PD had previously expressed its doubts about the field tests’ reliability, but nothing changed. Officers continued to use the tests and defendants continued to enter into plea bargains based on questionable evidence.
The Las Vegas PD knew the tests were highly fallible. After all, the department had signed off on a report saying as much and handed it into the DOJ in exchange for federal grant money. But cops still used them and prosecutors still relied on them when pursuing convictions.
Nothing changed until ProPublica stepped in with its own investigation into the faulty drug tests. In response to this reporting, prosecutors are finally taking a closer look at the tests officers deploy hundreds of times a year.
The Clark County District Attorney’s Office in Nevada established a conviction review unit in October. In what appears to be one of its first efforts, the unit has been seeking information about problematic convictions resulting from one of the office’s routine practices: accepting guilty pleas in drug cases that rely largely on the results of field tests done by police that can be unreliable.
Unfortunately, this initial move is being handled poorly. Rather than have its prosecutors reexamine any cases relying on field-tested evidence, the DA’s office is dumping the workload on already-burdened public defenders.
Daniel Silverstein, head of the newly formed unit, in November asked a statewide organization of defense lawyers for any information they had on cases that might have involved inaccurate field tests, and thus resulted in potentially wrongful convictions.
This isn’t the defense attorneys’ problem. While they’re definitely interested in a solution, the wrongful convictions were pursued by the DA’s office and its attorneys should be the ones looking for convictions that might need to be overturned. The DA’s office has more resources and it is the entity that chose to continue pursuing cases against citizens based on nothing more than unreliable $2 test kits.
Howard Brooks, the Clark County Public Defender’s appellate director, called the district attorney request to defense attorneys “an absurd challenge.” Brooks argued it is the duty of prosecutors to verify the integrity of their convictions — both those that have already been won and those being brokered today in Clark County courts.
Then there’s the fact that this examination process won’t end up reversing many convictions. As ProPublica points out, seized evidence is routinely destroyed after convictions are obtained. And while lab tests are run on seized substances, that only happens if everyone coordinates to run the samples through as soon as possible. This is something that almost never happens.
Prosecutors routinely delay crime lab analysis to check results of field tests until the eve of trial, court records show. When defendants plead guilty at preliminary hearings, the alleged drugs rarely even reach the lab. In Clark County last year, according to court data, just eight of 4,633 drug convictions went to trial.
Add to that the fact that the PD itself has never tracked the failure rate of its field drug tests, despite having access to this data. It may have signed off on a damning report, but its discoveries about the tests’ fallibility changed nothing about its day-to-day business. The drug tests remained in use by the police department and were treated as unquestionable evidence by the DA’s office when pushing for plea deals.
About the only immediate positive result of this investigation is the higher bar prosecutors will have to clear before admitting field drug test results as evidence. The state’s public defenders are planning to challenge every field drug test submission during evidentiary hearings. Of course, this assumes the judicial process will even make it this far.
For many of the accused, accepting plea deals nets them shorter sentences and a slightly less-awful future than going to trial might. Defendants often accept deals just to avoid actual jail time. On the prosecution scorecard, it still counts as a win. As a bonus, additional evidence possibly pointing to the field tests’ abysmal accuracy rate vanishes, allowing cops, prosecutors, and sympathetic judges to continue lying to themselves about the tests’ accuracy.