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Is a $2 Roadside Test Sending Innocent People to Jail?


Being arrested for a criminal offense such as an illegal drug possession charge can be a nerve-wracking experience, leaving an accused person with questions about the future and what will come next.

The charges can be even more terrifying for a person who is innocent but is told that evidence against the person proves they are guilty.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, more than 1.2 million people per year are arrested on charges of illegal drug possession. In order to make arrests – which often lead to convictions – officers in the field are trained to use drug-testing kits on the spot.  Despite the fact that these kits are used to ultimately incarcerate people, evidence shows that they may be far from reliable.

High Rates of Error with Roadside Kits

As the Times reports, the roadside kits that are used to arrest (and eventually convict) individuals suspected of drug possession cost, on average, about $2 each. First developed in the early 1970s, the technology behind the kits has seen few changes in the past 40 years.

Each test works slightly differently. For example, one test for suspected cocaine requires police officers to deposit the sample into a tube filled with cobalt thiocyanate. When the cobalt thiocyanate is exposed to cocaine, it should change to a blue-colored liquid.

The idea is that if an officer deposits a substance, and the liquid within the test tube turns blue, the substance is indeed cocaine, and the officer has cause to move forward with an arrest based on drug possession.

The problem with cobalt thiocyanate, however, is that there are approximately 80 other compounds that can make the liquid turn blue. Some of these compounds include bathroom cleaners, laundry detergent, and even some types of medications, according to the Times.

The fact that test tubes’ colors can be affected by different compounds is not the only concern. Other tests must be administered in an exact order to be accurate, with the smallest of errors resulting in what is called a “false positive.”

Other tests may be affected by outdoor temperatures, while the reading of some test results can be impacted by something as seemingly minor as poor lighting.

Unreliable Tests Used to Charge and Convict Innocent People

The biggest problem with these tests is not that they are occasionally used, but that they are used with such frequency to charge and convict people of drug possession or drug trafficking charges.

The tests are so inaccurate that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement lab system reported that 21 percent of evidence that was identified as being methamphetamine (after being identified as such by a drug-testing system) was not, in fact, methamphetamine.

In one area of Florida, 15 cases of false positives for methamphetamine identification occurred in a single seven-month period, the Times reports.

Despite the fact that these tests often may fail to work as intended, they are used all of the time to arrest and convict people for drug charges. In fact, in nine of 10 jurisdictions surveyed nationwide, guilty pleas that were based on the results of field drug tests were accepted.

Some cities where judges accept plea deals based on only the results of a field test include Tampa, Seattle, San Diego, Salt Lake, and Phoenix.

This matters because most drug convictions are the result of a guilty plea. In a county in Texas, convictions based on a guilty plea were as high as 99.5 percent.

In many cases, those who are charged with drug possession are told that the evidence is stacked against them and that if they plead guilty, they have a better chance of being let off easily. Often, the “evidence” is the result of a roadside drug test, which may be inaccurate.

Because those who are charged with these crimes often plead guilty as a result of pressure or fear, the original substance used as evidence against them may never be re-tested in a more accurate laboratory setting. In some cases, a re-testing of a substance in a laboratory setting could exonerate accused persons.

The fact that the drug tests are faulty and should not be used as the sole type of evidence in a drug conviction case has been known for years. The Times article cites the National Bureau of Standards, which cautioned against using the kits as sole evidence for convictions way back in 1974.

The Importance of Working with an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney

The fact that roadside tests, which are cheap and unreliable, may often be used to arrest people throughout the country and then convince them to plead guilty to charges in order to receive a less severe sentence without any additional evidence against them being presented, is a scary thought.

It is also one of the primary reasons that those who are charged with drug possession or drug trafficking need to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney.

An experienced Goldsboro Criminal Defense Lawyer can have evidence against you dismissed if it is improperly obtained or faulty and can also help to protect your right to be presumed innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

An attorney can also help you to understand whether pleading guilty and accepting a plea bargain is within your best interests, or if you will be better served by pleading not guilty and defending yourself against charges.

Our North Carolina Criminal Defense Lawyers Can Help You

If you are facing drug possession charges in Goldsboro, Kinston, or elsewhere in North Carolina, do not wait until it is too late to contact an attorney. You need legal assistance from the moment you are arrested.

Make our legal team your first phone call. We will work hard to build your case and protect your rights under the law, and we will not stand for faulty evidence being used to convict you of charges.

To learn more about how we can help when your future is on the line, call our law offices today, or contact us online. We are committed to serving you.