Police departments across the country utilize field test kits in order to determine whether a particular substance they find in the possession of a suspect is indeed a controlled substance. However, it is becoming clear as time goes on that these kits, which often cost around $2 and have changed very little since the early 1970s, are actually quite unreliable and routinely indicate false positive readings. This presents an enormous problem in which a person could face a felony drug charge simply because police misidentified some other legal substance in the suspect’s possession and the field kit read it as a false positive for an illegal drug.
A recent New York Times article detailed this problem in Texas, in which a woman was charged and plead guilty to a felony drug possession charge due in large part to a police field test kit misidentifying a crumb as cocaine. This woman was a passenger in her car, which her boyfriend was driving, when they were stopped by police and searched after the officers noticed a syringe hidden in the felt of the ceiling of the car. The officers then conducted a field test on the white crumb they found on the floor of the car. The test required the officers to place a sample of the crumb into a vial of cobalt thiocyanate, which is a pink liquid that turns blue when combined with cocaine. The liquid turned blue when the crumb was added, and the woman was arrested and charged with possession of cocaine. She did not believe that the crumb was cocaine, as she did not use the drug, but nonetheless agreed to plead guilty for a sentence of 45 days incarceration rather than go to trial and potentially face up to 2 years. However, the trouble didn’t end once she was released. The woman lost her job and her home, and had difficulty finding work to support herself and her son now that she had a felony conviction on her record. She struggled to make ends meet until the county’s conviction-integrity unit decided to reexamine her case. They ran another sample of the crumb through a much more reliable and advanced machine that revealed that the crumb was nothing more than food. The woman is now in the process of being completely exonerated, but extensive damage had already been done.
The guilty plea had been based largely on the results of the field test which indicated the presence of cocaine. However, the test used on the crumb is also known to yield a positive result for a litany of legal substances, such as methadone, acne medication, and household cleaners. Police officers, who are not chemical experts, are forced to rely on vague instructions when conducting these tests, and can’t tell the difference between a positive result from cocaine and a positive result from something else. While most states prohibit the introduction of these test results as evidence in a trial, they can often be used by prosecutors as a bargaining chip to secure a plea deal with scared defendants who are unfamiliar with the legal system or who wish to return to their families as quickly as possible. The article noted hundreds of false positive tests in Houston alone in the past decade, and that nearly all the defendants in those cases had plead guilty. The only thing that exonerated some of those defendants was post-conviction testing of the substance by groups like the conviction-integrity unit. While this may be a victory of sorts for those who were wrongfully convicted, it is unlikely that this same situation would happen in Pennsylvania. As it stands, it is highly unlikely that the supposed drugs would be retained and tested using more reliable methods by the Commonwealth after the defendant’s guilty plea. Thus, it is very important to challenge the results of the field test at trial if the defendant has a question about whether the substance was a controlled substance. Nobody should be convicted for a crime they didn’t commit, and nobody should plead guilty to a crime they didn’t commit based on the results of an unreliable drug test.
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