Police Still Using Inaccurate Drug Field Tests

When police believe someone has illegal drugs in their possession, they often rely on drug field tests to determine if the substance is really a drug. These kits are generally easy to use, which makes them convenient for police officers during traffic stops.

Unfortunately, reports show that drug field tests are often unreliable and sometimes outright wrong, resulting in innocent people spending days and sometimes even weeks in jail.

The problem is that police can still arrest an individual based on the results of a drug field test. Because a drug field test isn’t always admissible in court, the alleged drugs will need to be tested in a laboratory setting using tests like gas chromatography.  Labs that do drug testing are often very backed up, however, and so it can take a long time before a substance is actually tested.

Meanwhile, the person arrested due to a positive result on a drug field test might be forced to wait in jail until the results of more extensive and reliable drug testing come back from the lab. This waiting period can cause a potentially innocent person to miss so much work that they lose their job — not to mention the toll it takes on their family and their mental health. If you’re facing charges for a drug crime in Dallas that stem from evidence police obtained from a field drug test,  you should make sure to discuss your case with a Texas criminal defense lawyer.

How Reliable Are Drug Field Tests?

Reports have shown that drug field tests are notoriously unreliable. The Justice Department and the National Bureau of Standards have both issued statements cautioning that police shouldn’t rely on the results of drug field tests, as they are often inaccurate.

In a 2016 report, the investigative news organization ProPublica pointed out some of the more glaring inaccuracies associated with drug field tests. For example, the drug field test for cocaine might very well yield a positive result if the test detects cocaine, but it can also give a positive result for more than 80 various substances, including legal substances that are totally harmless.

In its report, ProPublica explains that police began using field drug tests in the late 1990s. In the beginning, the tests seemed like an affordable and reliable way to prove that a suspect had illegal drugs in their possession. At just $2 per kit, the field drug tests were affordable for the majority of police departments.

The report states that, to use a typical field drug test, police officers simply put the suspected illegal drug into a pouch inside the kit, and then wait to see if the drug interacts with chemicals inside, revealing the drug to be an illegal substance. (Change in color)

ProPublica states, “Local judges became sold on the kits’ usefulness and prosecutors relied on them to quickly secure guilty pleas — hundreds upon hundreds, year after year.”

However, the field drug tests weren’t reliable. Worse, ProPublica states that police departments knew it. “All along, though, police and prosecutors knew the tests were vulnerable to error, and by 2010, the police department’s crime lab wanted to abandon its kits for methamphetamine and cocaine.”

Some of the stories associated with false positive drug field tests are horrifying. In one case, a man was arrested when police believed he had 92 grams of heroin in his possession. The police approached the man while he was asleep in his van.

When police saw a baggie filled with white powder in his possession, they assumed it was an illegal substance and arrested the man. The court set the man’s bail at $500,000, and he spent 41 days in jail while he waited for additional lab testing.   

However, the man didn’t have heroin — or any kind of an illegal substance — in his possession at all. When additional lab testing came back, it revealed that the substance was simply laundry detergent powder.

How Drug Field Tests Can Lead to a Guilty Plea

Because a large percentage of drug cases are resolved through the plea bargain process, it’s easy to see how a defective drug field test could cause someone to panic and accept a plea deal even if they know they’re innocent.  

For example, if an individual is sitting in jail day after day, unsure if their job will be waiting for them once they get out, they might opt for a plea bargain even though they know they’re innocent.

A faulty drug field test could be the thing that pushes an innocent person into agreeing to plead guilty, which can have serious and long-term consequences for their career and finances.

If you have been arrested or charged with a crime in Dallas that’s based on evidence police obtained from a field drug test, it’s important to speak to an experienced Texas criminal defense lawyer about your options.

Your lawyer will explain the law and how it relates to your case. Your future and your freedom are too important to entrust to just anyone. This is why it’s critical you hire someone with experience like drug crime attorney John Helms for your Texas criminal defense.


Media Contact:

Attorney John Helms

(T): 214-666-8010