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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  1. icon
    Jessie (profile), 18 Jul 2016 @ 6:16am

    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.

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