Drug War

'Tens of Thousands' Wrongly Convicted Based on Unreliable Drug Tests

A crumb on the floor of your car can make you a felon, even if it's just a crumb.

|

Sirchie

ProPublica reporters Ryan Gabrielson and Topher Sanders estimate that widely used but notoriously unreliable field tests for drugs have led to "tens of thousands" of wrongful convictions in the United States. The tests are not admissible in court, but that does not matter much, since the vast majority of drug cases—90 percent or more—are resolved by plea deals. Gabrielson and Sanders' story, which was published in The New York Times Magazine over the weekend, illustrates that point with the case of a Louisiana woman, Amy Albritton, whose employment prospects were ruined by a felony conviction after Houston police pulled over her car in 2010 and found a white crumb they mistakenly identified as crack cocaine.

The test that was used to incriminate Albritton involves dropping a suspected drug sample into a vial of cobalt thiocyanate, which is supposed to turn blue in the presence of cocaine. But as Gabrielson and Sanders note, "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." That is not the only cause of false positives:

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.

It is hard to say exactly how common false positives are, although a Las Vegas study found that one out of three samples identified as cocaine was in fact something else. In Florida, Gabrielson and Sanders write, "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." Since field tests are widely used and police arrest more than 1 million people for drug possession every year, even a relatively low error rate could lead to thousands of erroneous arrests each year. In their analysis of drug cases in Harris County, Texas (where Albritton was arrested), Gabrielson and Sanders found that 212 people were convicted of possessing a substance that a field test mistakenly identified as an illegal drug between January 2004 and June 2015. "If Albritton's case is one of hundreds in Houston," they write, "there is every reason to suspect that it is just one among thousands of wrongful drug convictions that were based on field tests across the United States." 

Despite the dubious nature of the evidence against her, Albritton ended up taking a plea deal that involved a 45-day jail sentence after she was told that she otherwise could spend up to two years behind bars. She ultimately spent just three weeks in jail, but that was the least of her punishment. She lost her job as the manager of an apartment complex in Monroe, Louisiana, and her new status as a felon made it impossible to find steady work that paid nearly as well, which in turn made it difficult to care for a son with cerebral palsy. Her whole life was upended by a crumb on the floor of her car that a lab test later found was not any sort of illegal drug. Albritton had no idea she had been exonerated until Gabrielson and Sanders tracked her down and got in touch with her.

In addition to the unreliability of field tests, Albritton's case illustrates the power that cops have thanks to excessive judicial faith in drug-sniffing dogs. Police supposedly stopped her car, which her boyfriend was driving, because he had failed to signal a lane change. It turned out the boyfriend did not have a driver's license, but the registration showed Albritton was the car's owner, making her presumptively responsible for any drugs police might find in it. At this point the cops had no justification for searching the car, as became clear when they asked her permission. Albritton consented to the search partly because she knew she was not carrying any drugs but also because one of the officers said that otherwise he would bring in a police dog. The implication was clear: Either he would search the car based on her "consent," or he would search it based on the dog's purported "alert," which like the field test might or might not actually indicate the presence of contraband.

One point that Gabrielson and Sanders do not make in their otherwise excellent exposé: It would be utterly absurd and unjust to lock Albritton up and ruin her life even if the speck of material on the floor of her car (which weighed in at less than two-hundredths of a gram) had contained cocaine. But whether or not they have anything to do with illegal drugs, Americans should be alarmed by the the fact that police have the power to stop your car at will, search it at will (assuming they have a dog or use the threat of one to obtain your consent), incriminate you with a test so unreliable that its results cannot be used in court, and railroad you into a felony conviction. 

NEXT: Brickbat: That'll Stop Them

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. A man in Tampa is suing the local police department for a drug test that gave a positive test result to cigarette ash from his car.

    1. My Co-Worker’s step-sister made $15200 the previous week. She gets paid on the laptop and moved in a $557000 condo. All she did was get blessed and apply the guide leaked on this web site. Browse this site.. This is what I do..
      Go here to this… http://www.trends88.com

  2. What happened to the good old days when the hardnosed but righteous detective would stick his pinky in a bag of white powder and touch it to his tongue to test for cocaine?

    1. Can’t do that with a speck of dust or a crumb. These cops must have super powers to find this ‘micro’ evidence.

    2. Random drug testing.

  3. SCIENCE!

    1. You spelled ‘fuck you that’s why’ wrong.

  4. Nanograms for liberty, dontcha feel safer.

  5. As long as the victims are poor or minority it does not matter. No one in the entire justice system will ever be heald to account for ruining the lives of innocent victims. The entire system is corrupt and rigged.
    Justice like capitalism only works for the rich, powerful and law enforcement. Corporate elites and their families: avoid paying taxes, avoid military service and avoid charity donations they are filled with fake patriotism.

    1. Corporate elites and their families: avoid paying taxes, avoid military service and avoid charity donations they are filled with fake patriotism

      The only one of those that is actually close to being true is “avoid military service” and that is a mixed bag. Unless you are “independently wealthy”, those “corporate elites” are almost certainly paying a lot more taxes and giving a lot more to charity than you.

      The entire system is corrupt and rigged. Justice like capitalism only works for the rich, powerful and law enforcement.

      There is no justice without capitalism. There is only servitude. The chance you get fucked under our current system is in the single digits. That’s about equal to the chance you don’t get fucked under non-capitalist systems. Work to improve the system, not to replace it with a far worse one.

      1. Hear Hear! I was about to ask how what Reflections said of “Corporate Elites” was different from any other kind of Elites?

        The thing is, Corporate Elites rise based on Greed. Most others rise based on fear.

        1. Fear, or ignorance – believing the leader is some infallible God-King, being either descended from or anointed by the divine to rule over the rest of us.

    2. I have to admit I laughed at “avoid charity donations.”

      Hey, guess what? You can avoid those too, by simply not donating money to anyone.

      1. People like this guy don’t believe in giving to charity.The believe in taking money by force of arms and having government ‘take care’ of people.

    3. The top 20% pay,I believe,80% of all income taxes.Businesses pay half of all federal S.S. \ Medicare with holding,except for the us self employed,who pay both parts.

      1. Businesses pay half of all federal S.S. \ Medicare with holding

        Technically, yeah. But it’s still reducing your pay.

        1. Not in all cases,many low margin or small businesses may use the extra as working capital.I would.

          1. I suppose if it were repealed today, I suppose that would be likely.

      2. The top 20% pay,I believe,80% of all income taxes

        And what percentage of taxes are income taxes?

        While you are making a point here, I’m not sure it’s anywhere near as strong as people who usually make it think it is…

    4. Justice like capitalism only works for the rich

      I can only assume for your comment that you have no idea of what capitalism actually is. So, are you willfully ignorant? Are you stupid? Or are you able and willing to learn what capitalism really is?

      1. Either way, it has clearly not occurred to him that in all other systems, “Justice” only works for the connected.

        The difference being that in our society it is relatively easy to become rich. Becoming connected is another matter.

      2. capitalism, n. anything whose outcome I don’t like

      3. Yeah, I don’t know how anyone can seriously say that. Especially now when the internet has allowed so many new possibilities for productive self-employment by people without a lot of capital. Capitalism is pretty much the only thing that has ever raised large numbers of people out of poverty.

  6. I recall hearing about a case where the police arrested a man because of trace amounts of cocaine on cash in his wallet. The case was later thrown out after the defense had a study done that showed almost every bill in circulation has trace amounts of cocaine on it. As a result of that many locations require that a certain amount of the drug be recovered not just a trace amount.

    1. “Trace amounts” might be cause to start an investigation, but they should never be the sole or primary evidence for a conviction. They’re a form of circumstantial evidence, but unlike in a theft, rape, assault, or murder there is no accompanying concrete evidence that a crime occurred. Circumstantial evidence only establishes that if there was a crime, this person may have had some connection to it. It can’t prove the crime itself.

      1. Their using stops for minor traffic violations to start a search.The trace amount is just the result.

    2. “The case was later thrown out after the defense had a study done that showed almost every bill in circulation has trace amounts of cocaine on it.”
      Yeah they actually found traces on state attorney general’s cash, Jeb Bush’s (maybe his brother paid him back a loan) a former Miss America, Edward McCarthy who as you know was Archbishop of Miami.

  7. Well it’s cheaper than training a German Shepard to sit every time it walks by a wheel well or trunk.

    1. You know who else used German Shepard’s to enforce their laws?

      1. Colonel Klink?

  8. The purpose of these tests is to convict poor people who can’t afford a real attorney, and instead are stuck with a public pretender whose job is to get plea bargains for the prosecutor.

    So in that respect the tests work perfectly.

  9. Cops fucking love science the same way meme reposters do. (I.e. not actually, just as something with which to bludgeon people who disagree with them)

  10. Cops fucking love science the same way meme reposters do. (I.e. not actually, just as something with which to bludgeon people who disagree with them)

  11. Cops fucking love science the same way meme reposters do. (I.e. not actually, just as something with which to bludgeon people who disagree with them)

  12. Cops fucking love science the same way meme reposters do. (I.e. not actually, just as something with which to bludgeon people who disagree with them)

  13. Cops fucking love science the same way meme reposters do. (I.e. not actually, just as something with which to bludgeon people who disagree with them)

  14. Cops fucking love science the same way meme reposters do. (I.e. not actually, just as something with which to bludgeon people who disagree with them)

    1. Eman; you really need to see a doctor about that tremor. I sympathize. My Lady’s hands sometimes shake so hard she cannot use her phone.

    2. The squirrels were angry about your post.

    3. Cops and proggies love shitty science

    4. Cops fucking love science the same way squirrels do, apparently.

    5. Cops fucking love science the same way squirrels do, apparently.

    6. Cops fucking love science the same way squirrels do, apparently.

    7. Cops fucking love science the same way squirrels do, apparently.

      1. Also I’ve gained control over squirrels and can now summon them at will. Soon I will get them tiny horses and bows, and the great squirrel horde will conquer Reason’s comment section!!

      2. Also I’ve gained control over squirrels and can now summon them at will. Soon I will get them tiny horses and bows, and the great squirrel horde will conquer Reason’s comment section!!

        1. (As an aside, if Reason put one damn line of JavaScript into their comment section, the squirrels could be eternally defeated)

          1. Or reason could use a fucking threaded comment system that features up and down votes and actually enables conversation for longer than a post is the first post on the page. You know, like Disqus?

  15. Or, we could stop trying to “save” people from Peruvian nose candy and the like, and maybe – just maybe -start to retake our Civil Liberties and Rights back from the bumbling Police State.

    The Problem with a State that is big enough to give you everything you want (like ‘Drug Free’ schools) is not that to is big enough to take everything you have, but that it is big enough to squash you like a bug without even noticing you were there.

  16. And we look down on our noses at those expert witnesses who examined a woman’s body for witch-marks!

    1. I think Warty still does.

      1. The Doomcock examines?

        I guess it could be a euphemism for rape.

  17. One point that Gabrielson and Sanders do not make in their otherwise excellent expos?: It would be utterly absurd and unjust to lock Albritton up and ruin her life even if the speck of material on the floor of her car (which weighed in at less than two-hundredths of a gram) had contained cocaine.

    ^this^

    This is why all drugs must be legalized now. Anything short of that will only result in more of the above. 1 step up the slippery slope and 2 steps back down is never going to work.

    1. Here’s the thing. If drug use/possession is re-classified as a health disorder instead of a criminal offense, it will be illegal to arrest, not hire or fire someone who tests positive. This should put an end to drug screening of any sort. BUT, the cops will complain once they start losing money for drug enforcement, so I don’t see this happening any time soon.

    2. I fully agree that the “war on some drugs” must be abolished. It is the main cause of all the homicides.

  18. Better 10 innocent men go to prison, than one guilty man go free.

    1. If its for the common good, it must be OK.

    2. I know you’re joking but it’s amazing how many people are okay with the concept of innocent people going to jail as long as it ensures more guilty ones go to jail, too (which is already illogical to begin with). For some reason, they are unable to consider that THEY or a family member might be the innocent person in jail.

  19. And yet another reason that the police profession needs a thorough house cleaning, or to be torn down and rebuilt. See, these cops doing the test are considered “the good ones”. If these guys are the good ones, the system is worthless.

    1. What ever might “bad cops” be like, if this mob is described as “good cops”?

  20. I left my office-job and now I am getting paid 104 usd hourly. How? I work over internet! My old work was making me miserable, so I was forced to try something different, 2 years after…I can say my life is changed-completely for the better! Check it out what i do..


    ????? http://www.CareerPlus90.com

  21. RE: ‘Tens of Thousands’ Wrongly Convicted Based on Unreliable Drug Tests
    A crumb on the floor of your car can make you a felon, even if it’s just a crumb.

    What’s wrong with that?
    Our country cannot be a socialist state if the majority of the population is not incarcerated for possessing something they want. One must remember without drug prohibition that almost half the inmates in prison would be released. Just think of the horrors that would bring! People thinking for themselves by ingesting items they want. The prison guard and bureaucracy numbers would plummet. Our socialist slavers could not ask for more money if drugs were legal. The DEA would become extinct. Civil asset forfeiture laws would take a huge hit and our federal, state and local law enforcement agencies would have to have a bake sale in order to have the funds to oppress and harass us.
    The State might wise up and place a “sin tax” on said drugs that would only shut them up about using drugs. I could go on, but I’m sure employing logic in making drugs legal would only horrify the collective and make them lose sleep at night.

  22. Sounds to me like this department needs to be sued for, a Billion Dollars sounds like a reasonable figure.

  23. Certain substances are tested for twice, first by a presumptive test then by a confirmatory test. Presumptive tests are designed to give a low percentage of false negatives at the cost of a certain number of false positives. Confirmatory tests are designed to give a low percentage of false positives. I suspect that many in the criminal justice system don’t get this. “A Test of a Different Color: The Limited Value of Presumptive Field Drug Tests and Why That Value Demands Their Exclusion from Trial,” by Alan Harris is a good discussion.

  24. I would think someone arrested under false positive conditions could, and should sue the crap out of the manufacturer. The fact that a confirmatory test isn’t performed should void ALL results.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.