Faulty Field Drug Test Affecting Lives Of Thousands Across The Country

By McCarton Ackerman 07/12/16

A chemical in the drug test turns blue when exposed to cocaine, acne medication and 80 other compounds. 

Faulty Field Drug Test Affecting Lives Of Thousands Across The Country

Even though the $2 drug test that police use has proven to be faulty in numerous instances, resulting in innocent people being sent to jail, it doesn’t appear there are any plans to stop using it.

In August 2010, Amy Albritton was pulled over in Houston, Texas. The officer at the scene claimed to have observed a needle in her car and a white crumb on the floor that he thought was crack cocaine. Although Albritton insisted she didn’t use drugs, the drug test came back positive. Facing a 45-day jail sentence if she pleaded guilty or up to two years in prison if she went to trial, she took the former and was released in three weeks.

The white crumb was brought to the Houston Police Department crime lab, but was left untested. Five months after Albritton finished her sentence, it was determined that the crumb was in fact food debris. However, no one followed up on correcting the charge. The Texas Criminal Court of Appeals finally overturned her conviction in June, but it won’t be official until it’s finalized in trial court in Houston, according to the New York Times. Because of her felony conviction, Albritton, a formerly successful property manager, has struggled to move beyond low-wage jobs since.

“You’re not ever free and clear of it. It follows you everywhere you go,” she said.

The field drug tests used by police haven’t changed much since first being implemented in 1973. Although the chemical used, cobalt thiocyanate, will turn blue when it’s exposed to cocaine, it does the same thing with 80 other compounds including certain household cleaners and acne medications. Cold weather can invalidate the results and even faulty street lighting can make it difficult for officers to accurately read the tests.

Perhaps most disturbing is that Albritton's case is hardly an isolated incident. The Harris County District Attorney’s Office hadn’t corrected 416 “variants” from January 2004 to June 2015, all of them cases that had involved guilty pleas. Out of the 301 arrests, 212 came from evidence that a lab analysis determined was not a controlled substance. There were also stark racial implications, with African-Americans comprising 59% of the arrests in a city where they make up 24% of the population.

Four separate civil lawsuits have been filed across the country from people who were falsely arrested because of the tests.

“[It was] a breakdown at every point in the system," said Devon Anderson, Harris County’s district attorney. “It may sound corny, but it’s true: Our duty under Texas law is to seek justice. A lot of people think it’s convictions, but it’s justice.”

Last year, Anderson began refusing plea deals in drug possession cases before a report can be issued, resulting in case dismissals increasing by 31% because the lab has proven the defendants aren’t guilty. But some former officials are calling for a halt to drug field testing across the board.

“Police officers are not chemists,” said former Houston police chief Charles McClelland. “Officers shouldn’t collect and test their own evidence, period.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.