Drug War

Man Jailed for Soap Sues Pennsylvania Troopers

A field test supposedly identified the white powder in the trunk as cocaine.

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Morse-Brown Publishing

Alexander Bernstein, who spent a month in a Pennsylvania jail two years ago for possession of soap, is now suing the state troopers responsible for his arrest and detention, arguing that they knew the field test they used to identify a white powder as cocaine was unreliable. In addition to losing his freedom for 29 days, Bernstein missed Thanksgiving with his 17-month-old son and had to pay thousands of dollars in bail and court costs. The Allentown Morning Call reports that his federal civil rights lawsuit, which seeks more than $150,000 in damages, names as defendants various current and former Pennsylvania State Police officials and Safariland, the Florida company that manufactured the field test. 

Bernstein was a passenger in a rented Mercedes Benz driven by Annadel Cruz that was pulled over by state police on Interstate 78 in South Whitehall Township on November 13, 2013. A trooper claimed he stopped the car because Cruz was driving five miles per hour above the speed limit and hugged the side of the lane for half a mile. It seems more likely, as Bernstein's lawyer suggested at the time, that the sight of a young Latina driving an expensive car made the trooper's heart leap at the thought of finding seizable cash or contraband. The Call says police did ultimately discover "a small amount of marijuana in Cruz's bra." But their major find during a purportedly consensual search of the car's trunk—"two brick-size packages…covered in clear plastic wrap and red tape" that weighed 5.2 pounds—was not cocaine, as the field test supposedly indicated, but homemade soap, as Cruz maintained all along.

Bernstein's bail, originally set at $500,000, was reduced to $25,000 after four weeks, which is how he managed to regain his freedom. Five days later, a lab test confirmed that the white powder was indeed soap. The lawsuit notes that "all the laboratory tests performed on the substance, which the operator [of the vehicle] claimed, from the beginning, constituted nothing more than soap, confirmed that the package contained no cocaine, and no other drugs or controlled substances, but merely soap." Cruz, who like Bernstein faced possession, distribution, and conspiracy charges in connection with the alleged cocaine, also was jailed, but she did not join his lawsuit. 

Field tests for drugs are notoriously unreliable, mistaking common products such as soap, deodorant, billiard chalk, tea, breath mints, soy milk, and chocolate for illicit substances. In 2012, the Call notes, Travis County, Texas, District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg "stopped accepting plea bargains on low-level possession cases based on field tests after a string of 12 false-positive drug tests." But Bernstein implies in his complaint that police fabricated the test result in his case. While pretending to be asleep at the state police barracks, he says, he overheard one trooper tell another that the substance in Cruz's trunk had tested negative for cocaine. "Well," the other trooper allegedly replied, "mark it positive."

If that account is accurate, it tends to undermine Bernstein's claim against Safariland. Either way, Bernstein surely is right that state police, who declined to comment on the suit, owe him something for the ordeal they ascribe to an error. The lawsuit notes that Bernstein "did not so much as receive an apology from the defendants."

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  1. This is why you don’t travel in a Mercedes with a Puerto Rican.

    1. You want me to pick up Puerto Rican hookers in a Prius?

  2. Five miles over the limit on 78? She must have been the slowest car on the road.

    1. No, probably 15 mph faster than the right lane and 10 mph SLOWER than the left lane. If I had to guess.

  3. Five miles an hour over the limit? That’s…not cause to pull someone over in PA. Has to be at least 6 (or 11 in a 55 zone).

    They’re just not even trying.

    1. FYTW has a long reach.

  4. A field test

    Lawyers, I’m dumb and don’t know the law very well, why can’t this guy sue the test manufacturers as well?

    1. ” Safariland, the Florida company that manufactured the field test.”

      My bad, as I said, I’m dumb.

  5. Field tests are worse than drug dogs. At least drug dogs are only an excuse to search. Field tests have just about as much reliability as drug dogs, except they can send you to jail for a few months before they say “Whoops, lab test said it wasn’t drugs.”

  6. Today in peak derp, from the comments to the linked article:

    Fortunately for the suspect the lab techs test by scraping off a piece (sample) from the evidence (or just one object of many in the evidence container) and therefor do not check ALL of the evidence. So…the techs often miss the contraband by the faulty manner of their techniques, which is (I am reasonably sure) actually done according to some kind of regulations or code in legal documentation somewhere. I mean, honestly, who drives a considerable distance as in this case on a highway with “homemade soap”?!?!?! And how is homemade soap made? There has to be a PRESS involved I would think. Hmmmm, that is the same way you would conceal cocaine in the middle of a innate substance which has the same density and color of the illegal substance, correct? So they got away with trafficking (AND no doubt got their “soap” back from the evidence locker after the case was dismissed) and can now continue to transport cocaine with impunity since they has established a precedent that local law enforcement will remember, so they now has a free pass. Hopefully someone in a position to change the manner in which they test at the lab will read this. If not, well, have a nice day and don’t complain if your neighborhood has a lot of soapy cocaine, lol.

    1. All of our tests are faulty, so just throw ’em in jail regardless of the results. Flawless logic.

      1. BOOM!!

        This is how it’s done, folks!

        +1 WE ARE WINNING! #Booyah

    2. That has to be sarcasm. Please let it be sarcasm. I’m gonna go with sarcasm because sanity.

    3. That’s quality trolling right there. QUALITY…

      Oh, wait….they’re serious.

      We are DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMED

      1. I bet you don’t even know how soap is made? Nobody knows how soap is made.

        In fact, there is no such thing as soap. It’s all just disguised cocaine.

        1. *holds shattered worldview in hands – wind blows it away*

        2. *Shrugs; continues to bathe in cocaine*

    4. Ban clear plastic wrap and red tape! I mean, honestly, who wraps anything in plastic wrap. And the only reason they even make red tape is for coke dealers. And no one has any need to make homemade soap. Why were Americans, we didn’t fight for our freedom just so drug dealers can transport soap anywhere they want!!

    5. I mean, honestly, who drives a considerable distance as in this case on a highway with “homemade soap”?!?!?

      Nobody needs that much soap. Probably assault soap.

      and can now continue to transport cocaine with impunity since they has established a precedent that local law enforcement will remember, so they now has a free pass.

      I lol’d. Like anybody gets a free pass ever from the cops when there’s money to be had.

    6. ==And how is homemade soap made?

      Not sure, but I think it requires breaking into a liposuction clinic dumpster in the dark of night.

    7. So, even though there was no evidence at all that there was any cocaine anywhere, this person is sure that must be what it was because one cop thought it might be. And they are confused by soap, apparently. I mean, what possible reason could a person have for transporting soap? No one ever wants to, say, share something they made with their family.

    8. I’m pretty sure the peak derp above is as follows:

      (1) The lab tests, run by lab techs in a lab, are shit.

      (2) So we should trust the field tests, run by some cop on the side of the road!

  7. ::looks at watch::

    ::refreshes reason.com/blog::

    tick, tock…

    1. Oooooo – someone’s got teh Fist Envy?

    2. Whoever is supposed to be doing the links is busy writing another pro-refugee article.

      1. No, it is already written. They are searching for another photo of doe-eyed small Syrian children that hasn’t already been used to post on it.

    3. Yeah, me too. I think we got Syrian refugee articles instead of PM links.

  8. ut Bernstein implies in his complaint that police fabricated the test result in his case. While pretending to be asleep at the state police barracks, he says, he overheard one trooper tell another that the substance in Cruz’s trunk had tested negative for cocaine. “Well,” the other trooper allegedly replied, “mark it positive.”

    If that account is accurate, it tends to undermine Bernstein’s claim against Safariland.

    Not necessarily. It’s possible there were two tests done: the field test, which showed positive, and a more accurate test back at the station that showed negative. If Safariland manufactured the field test, then the case against them wouldn’t be undermineded by the fact that the police hid results of the second test.

    1. Safariland was ON THE GRASSY KNOLL!!!

      #BACKANDTOTHELEFT_BACKANDTOTHELEFT

  9. Apologizing is an admittance of guilt so you’re not going to get an apology unless the officer is stupid and not just evil.

  10. My wife is a soap making fanatic. She is gonna love this story.

  11. “The lawsuit notes that Bernstein “did not so much as receive an apology from the defendants.””

    Screw any apology; I want these guys fired.

  12. The guy should be allowed to lock the cop in his basement for 29 days now. Only seems fair.

  13. Whatever happened to dipping your finger in it and rubbing it on your gums, a la every crappy cop show I’ve ever seen? That’d save a lot of time and money.

    1. They probably kept him locked up because when they got back to the station and tried just that they were disappointed to find soap and took it out on him.

  14. Cops cannot be trusted. Cops lie all the time and everywhere. They lie for no reason other than that they can get away with it. They lie, lie, lie, and lie again. They lie on their arrest reports, they lie in court, they lie to get a brother cop out of a jam. They lie with abandon. They lie with aplomb. They lie with sincerity. It’s the first lesson in police academy: “How to lie sincerely.” This is the reason you never, never trust a cop. Every word out of their mouths is a lie.

    1. I’m hearing some trust issues with our police…

  15. How exactly does someone tell if someone driving a car is a “young latina”, given that it’s really a culture, not a race? If Ted Cruz drove by in a BMW, would you say “Hey, that’s a latino” or would you say it’s a white guy?

    Don’t get me wrong, they probably pulled them over for no good reason, but probably because it was an expensive rental car (which typically have special plates).

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