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This $2 Drug Test Is Turning Innocent People into Felons

A $2 drug test may be to blame for thousands of false drug convictions across the country. According to an article by ProPublica, police officers arrest more than 1.2 million people a year on charges of illegal drug possession with the help of an unreliable field drug test that has seen little change since 1973.

The tests seem simple enough, but they come with a lot of problems. The test for cocaine, for example, uses a single tube of a chemical called cobalt thiocyanate, which turns blue when it is exposed to cocaine. But cobalt thiocyanate also turns blue when it is exposed to more than 80 other compounds, including certain acne medications and several common household cleaners. Environmental factors can also play a role: cold weather slows the color development; heat speeds it up or sometimes prevents a color reaction from taking place at all.

It is difficult to know the exact error rate. There is no central agency that regulates the manufacture or sale of the tests, and no comprehensive records are kept about their use, according to the article. 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 shows that 21 percent of evidence that the police listed as methamphetamine after identifying it was not in fact methamphetamine.

Although the field tests are usually inadmissible in court, they are used in part to force plea agreements. For example, in 2008, the Justice Department funded a program developed by the National Forensic Science Technology Center in order to reduce drug-evidence backlogs, as labs became increasingly tied up with DNA evidence. The program consisted of a series of seminars that taught local police officers how to administer color field tests on a large scale. In its curriculum, the technology center states that field tests help authorities by “removing the need for extensive laboratory analysis,” because “the field test may factor into obtaining an immediate plea agreement.” By ProPublica’s estimate, every year at least 100,000 people nationwide plead guilty to drug-possession charges that rely on field-test results as evidence. That could produce thousands of wrongful convictions.

Our office is continuing to investigate the use of these field tests and their impacts on guilty pleas. No one should plead guilty to a crime solely on the basis of an unreliable drug test. If you need help fighting your drug charges, the attorneys at Keith, Miller, Butler, Schneider & Pawlik are here to help. Call us today at 479-621-0006.

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