Man Gets $37,500 Payout After Field Drug Test Says Donut Crumbs Are Methamphetamines
from the not-even-worth-the-paper-the-summons-was-printed-on dept
Law enforcement agencies aren’t going to stop using cheap, faulty field drug tests. But they might soon be spending a lot more of the public’s cash settling lawsuits springing from false arrests. NPR has rounded up a few stories of field drug tests declaring normal, legal “substances” to be illegal contraband, starting with a man whose Krispy Kreme donut residue led to an arrest… and a $37,500 payout.
Here’s how the plaintiff’s story began:
As Rushing drove away from the convenience store, police pulled him over. The officer said he had been driving 42 miles an hour in a 30 zone and had failed to come to a complete stop before entering the roadway. When Rushing handed over his driver’s license, Officer Shelby Riggs-Hopkins noticed his concealed-weapons permit. Rushing confirmed he had a pistol, and she asked him to step out of the car for her safety.
The officer then asked if police could search his car, and Rushing said sure — if it meant he wouldn’t be ticketed. Rushing watched as the officers, who now numbered four, conducted a very thorough inspection of his car.
Finally, Riggs-Hopkins said to him, “You want to tell me about what we found?”
“There’s nothing to find,” he said, confused.
But Riggs-Hopkins had noticed some crystals on the floorboard of the car, and when officers used a field testing kit, the white substance tested positive for methamphetamine.
The supposed meth was actually glaze from a Krispy Kreme donut. But the faulty test the officers relied on swore it was drugs. Combined with Rushing’s legal possession of a handgun, the charges mounted: possession of an illegal substance while armed with a weapon. Rushing spent 10 hours in jail before being released. It wasn’t until much later that lab tests confirmed Rushing’s “it’s a donut” story. All charges were dropped.
As NPR notes, this would be almost funny if it were a one-off. But it isn’t. Field drug tests fail repeatedly. Another Florida resident was hauled off for cocaine possession over a substance later proven to be nothing more than drywall dust. (The “suspect” was a self-employed handyman.)
Repeated inaccuracy in the cheap drug tests (less than $2 per) led the Orlando police to conduct an internal investigation of the tests. But the only outcome was additional officer training. The Orlando PD continues to use the NIK narcotic field tests despite their obvious unreliability. The manufacturer insists it instructs law enforcement users the tests are not meant to replace lab work but only to establish probable cause.
That’s a weak excuse, considering the false assumption of probable cause leads to Fourth Amendment violations at the absolute minimum. At best, people may have their vehicles and persons searched thanks to a test’s bogus results. At worst, they’re subjected to additional constitutional violations, jailed for days or weeks over innocuous, legal substances.
Lab tests may clear this all up, but it takes time falsely-accused people don’t have to get this straightened out. In some jurisdictions, turnaround time on lab tests may be more than two months. The accused are normally presented with two unpalatable choices: take a plea bargain involving admission of criminal activity they didn’t actually commit or sit in jail until the test results come back. Some may be able to afford bail, but it’s still money out of their pockets and a serious dent in their permanent records. Plea bargains may get them out of jail quicker, but it comes at the expense of the rest of their lives, detrimentally affecting their future employment and housing prospects.
According to the PD’s own stats, the field tests return false positives 20% of the time. Considering what’s on the line for the falsely accused, this supposedly acceptable error rate is obscene. The NPR piece ends with the falsely-accused man joking he never eats donuts in his car anymore. Maybe it’s a joke, but the punchline relies on citizens altering their habits because cops are willing to let a provably-fallible $2 field test determine the outcome of the rest of someone else’s life. There’s nothing funny about that.