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Report: Law Enforcement Cuts Corners on Drug Tests – Result? Shocking Percentage of Guilty Pleas by Innocent Victims

Posted by Joseph Tully | Jul 25, 2016

We are living in an age of advanced technology, yet law enforcement does not always put it all to the service of Americans. In 2016, one would think that in order to be convicted in drug cases, evidence should include positive results from a reliable test.

Unreliable Field Tests Underlie California Drug Prosecutions

However, a detailed report published by ProPublica, an independent nonprofit newsroom, has revealed some shocking data. Although California and other crime labs have the ability to perform extremely reliable clinical tests to determine the presence of illegal substances, a staggering number of Americans have been prosecuted and convicted based on the largely unreliable results of questionable field tests.

In fact, the majority of the victims do not even appeal the California and other jurisdiction charges, even when they know the field tests have given a false positive. Of course, they have no way of knowing just how unreliable those tests can be.

In the past, crime labs dedicated much more time and resources to drug cases, but there has been a shift in the last few years. For instance, the forensic lab at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department analyzes the evidence in only 73 drug related cases per year. About 99% of the total 8,000 possession arrests are carried out based on field tests.

Dept. of Justice Warning on Field Test Unreliability

Ironically, it was the DOJ (Department of Justice) itself that first warned against the unreliability of field tests up until 2008, when a new program was put in place to reduce drug evidence backlogs by training officers to perform portable tests. The goal was to relieve crime labs of their heavy workloads, but in the end, making things easy for labs resulted in making them complicated and unreliable for thousands of innocent Americans.

What's Wrong with Drug Field Tests? Massive Error Rate.

In practice, common field tests are generally used to fast-track convictions. They have been around for over 40 years, and the technology hasn't really changed that much. At $2 apiece, they are quite the bargain, but there is a price to be paid for all their affordability and convenience.

Many common field tests for drugs use a chemical called cobalt thiocyanate, which turns blue upon exposure to cocaine. However, the substance can also turn blue when in the presence of a host of other compounds, as many as 80, including some harmless ones used in acne remedies and household cleaning fluids. There are also other problems, for example, environmental conditions, as excessive heat and cold may alter results.  Then there is also the question of lighting conditions, since in poor lighting, officers can commonly misread results.

To understand the error rate of the tests, let us consider that in Las Vegas, a re-examination of cocaine field tests found a shocking 33% of false positives. These results had led to the arrest and marred the records of many innocent individuals. In Florida, 21% of methamphetamine tests were found to be false positives. In 2014, 15 false positives were attributed to Florida officers not having been able to interpret the directions in the test pouches, and simply having misunderstood which color indicated a positive result.

False Positives from Unreliable Drug Tests Lead to Guilty Pleas

The data from many jurisdictions pointing to arrests based on unreliable drug tests speaks loudly. ProPublica also discovered that many innocent people had confessed to being guilty in the light of the positive results of field tests. In a sample of 300 individuals wrongfully convicted in Houston, over 50% had pleaded guilty in the first hearing, after being incarcerated for about a week.

The innocent people who have been arrested and convicted for drug use and drug possession based on field test results have often lost their jobs, their homes, and their place in society. In many cases, when the tests are redone in the lab and law enforcement wipes out their criminal records, it is already too late; the damage has already been done.

The inefficacy of the field tests themselves and the officers` lack of expertise and sloppiness in performing them are no secret today. In fact, as far back as 1978, the DOJ stated that they “should not be used for evidential purposes.” Yet law enforcement continues to resort to these unreliable methods to find evidence in drug cases, and often, to justify a quick arrest to tee up a fast conviction.

The situation today is, to all intents and purposes, dramatic, and it requires urgent action. If you or a loved one may have been affected by these practices, you can seek legal redress to help you restore your position in society and hopefully the prospects you may have lost on account of the criminal record you never deserved in the first place.

At Tully & Weiss we know the detrimental effects a drug conviction can have on your personal and professional life. Our exceptional record in difficult drug cases speaks for itself. If you are facing drug charges in California or want to discuss an appeal of a recent conviction or a record expungement, please call on our experienced California drug lawyers for a confidential discussion of your rights.

About the Author

Joseph Tully

Founding Partner, Criminal Law Specialist Our founding attorney, Joseph Tully, is sought out for his expert legal advice throughout California. With over 20 years of experience as a criminal lawyer, in 1000+ felony and other cases, Tully served as felony trial counsel as a public defender before...