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7/10/2016 6:49 am  #1


How a $2 Roadside Test Sends Innocent People to Jail

How a $2 Roadside
Drug Test
Sends Innocent
People to Jail



Widespread evidence shows that these tests routinely
produce false positives. Why are police departments
and prosecutors across the country still using them?


https://static01.nyt.com/images/2016/07/10/magazine/10drugtests1/10drugtests1-superJumbo-v4.jpg


Excerpts:

Police officers arrest more than 1.2 million people a year in the United States on charges of illegal drug possession. Field tests like the one Officer Helms used in front of Amy Albritton help them move quickly from suspicion to conviction. But the kits — which cost about $2 each and have changed little since 1973 — are far from reliable.

The field tests seem simple, but a lot can go wrong. Some tests, including the one the Houston police officers used to analyze the crumb on the floor of Albritton’s car, use 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 methadone, certain acne medications and several common household cleaners. Other tests use three tubes, which the officer can break in a specific order to rule out everything but the drug in question — but if the officer breaks the tubes in the wrong order, that, too, can invalidate the results. The environment can also present problems. Cold weather slows the color development; heat speeds it up, or sometimes prevents a color reaction from taking place at all. Poor lighting on the street — flashing police lights, sun glare, street lamps — often prevents officers from making the fine distinctions that could make the difference between an arrest and a release.


59% of the Houston defendants in drug arrests involving false positives were black.

There are no established error rates for the field tests, in part because their accuracy varies so widely depending on who is using them and how. 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. When we examined the department’s records, they showed that officers, faced with somewhat ambiguous directions on the pouches, had simply misunderstood which colors indicated a positive result.

No central agency regulates the manufacture or sale of the tests, and no comprehensive records are kept about their use. In the late 1960s, crime labs outfitted investigators with mobile chemistry sets, including small plastic test tubes and bottles of chemical reagents that reacted with certain drugs by changing colors, more or less on the same principle as a home pregnancy test. But the reagents contained strong acids that leaked and burned the investigators. In 1973, the same year that Richard Nixon formally established the Drug Enforcement Administration, declaring “an all-out global war on the drug menace,” a pair of California inventors patented a “disposable comparison detector kit.” It was far simpler, just a glass vial or vials inside a plastic pouch. Open the pouch, add the compound to be tested, seal the pouch, break open the vials and watch the colors change. The field tests, convenient and imbued with an aura of scientific infallibility, were ordered by police departments across the country. In a 1974 study, however, the National Bureau of Standards warned that the kits “should not be used as sole evidence for the identification of a narcotic or drug of abuse.” Police officers were not chemists, and chemists themselves had long ago stopped relying on color tests, preferring more reliable mass spectrographs. By 1978, the Department of Justice had determined that field tests “should not be used for evidential purposes,” and the field tests in use today remain inadmissible at trial in nearly every jurisdiction; instead, prosecutors must present a secondary lab test using more reliable methods.

But this has proved to be a meaningless prohibition. Most drug cases in the United States are decided well before they reach trial, by the far more informal process of plea bargaining.
In 2011, RTI International, a nonprofit research group based in North Carolina, found that prosecutors in nine of 10 jurisdictions it surveyed nationwide accepted guilty pleas based solely on the results of field tests, and in our own reporting, we confirmed that prosecutors or judges accept plea deals on that same basis in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Newark, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Diego, Seattle and Tampa.

This puts field tests at the center of any discussion about the justice of plea bargains in general. The federal government does not keep a comprehensive database of prosecutions in county and state criminal courts, but the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data at the University of Michigan maintains an extensive sampling of court records from the 40 largest jurisdictions. Based on this data, we found that more than 10 percent of all county and state felony convictions are for drug charges, and at least 90 percent of those convictions come by way of plea deals. In Tennessee, guilty pleas produce 94 percent of all convictions. In Kansas, they make up more than 97 percent. In Harris County, Tex., where the judiciary makes detailed criminal caseload information public, 99.5 percent of drug-possession convictions are the result of a guilty plea. A majority of those are felony convictions, which restrict employment, housing and — in many states — the right to vote.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/10/magazine/how-a-2-roadside-drug-test-sends-innocent-people-to-jail.html?hpw&rref=magazine&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=well-region&region=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well


We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 
 

7/10/2016 10:27 am  #2


Re: How a $2 Roadside Test Sends Innocent People to Jail

I was never aware of field tests for illegal drugs.

 

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