from the at-least-it's-an-inexpensive-violation-of-rights dept
Field drug tests are awful. They’re insanely unreliable. Sure, sometimes the tests are correct: the suspected drugs are actual drugs. Broken clocks and all that. But they’re so often wrong they should be considered as scientifically sound as hiring a full-time psychic and promoting them to detective.
Here’s a short list of things drug field tests have determined to be drugs:
- Cotton candy
- Donut crumbs
- A deceased child’s ashes
- Sand from a stress ball
- Bird poop (on the hood of a car)
Despite this, cops continue to use field drug tests. They’re cheap, which means they aren’t going to attract the attention of those holding the purse strings. And their unreliability is likely considered to be a feature, rather than a bug, since even false positives give officers permission to engage in warrantless searches and rack up (possibly temporary) wins in the War on Drugs.
Another blown call by a field drug test has robbed someone of their freedom and made the law enforcement officers who declared themselves drug war heroes look like fools. (h/t CJ Ciaramella/Reason)
Here’s how the Pharr (TX) police department first reported its (temporary) bust:
Texas police uncovered 700 gallons of liquid meth hidden in a tanker trailer, officials announced in a news release.
An officer patrolling an area in Pharr noticed three men pouring something from multiple 55-gallon barrels into smaller 5-gallon buckets around the tanker trailer.
“The officer’s attention to detail called for further investigation,” police said. “He called for backup, and when Pharr Fire Department responded to the scene and noticed crystallization forming around the barrels.”
The liquid was tested and determined to be methamphetamine, police said.
The link in the Star-Telegram article links to a since-deleted post by the Pharr Police Department — one in which the Police Chief Andy Harvey claimed the massive “bust” would have an “impact way beyond our region.”
It turned out to have no impact at all. The criminal complaint [PDF] says both the Pharr PD and the DEA agents called to the scene tested the substance — one the truck driver referred to as “soap” — and “presumptively determined” the liquid in the barrels and buckets (and, apparently, the tanker) was methamphetamine. There was much rejoicing.
The rejoicing was short-lived. Lab testing of the liquid seized by law enforcement showed it wasn’t meth.
A trucker accused of hauling 700 gallons of liquid meth is free from custody after laboratory testing proved his cargo actually didn’t contain narcotics.
Juan Carlos Toscano Guzman, a Mexican national, was arrested on Feb. 15, and spent nearly six weeks behind bars on false accusations of transporting an estimated $10 million worth of methamphetamine.
But Guzman didn’t have any meth. The retired oil field worker was transporting a mixture of diesel and oil, his lawyer, Oscar Vega, told McClatchy News in a phone interview.
The government dismissed the indictment less than six weeks after it had obtained it. Guzman spent that entire time in jail. It didn’t cost the cops much to be wrong — field drugs tests can be had for around $2/each. But it cost Guzman six weeks of his life because faulty field tests are considered probable cause for arrest and criminal charges. When the tests fail, it only hurts the falsely accused. And that, apparently, doesn’t matter to law enforcement agencies, which have continued to use these tests despite being fully knowledgeable of how flawed they are.
Guzman, according to his lawyer, doesn’t appear interested in suing over this arrest and six-week stay in jail. (And, given that presumptive drug tests are considered probable cause, it would be a tough case to make.) That means the Pharr PD and its DEA buddies will walk away from this with nothing more than slightly bruised reputations. And that’s not enough to deter the use of tools that generate false positives at an alarming rate.