A Florida man spent 41 days behind bars after police found a powdery white substance in his van last month. Spoiler alert: It wasn't drugs.
Matthew Crull, 28, of Port St. Lucie, was sitting in his newly purchased van on December 5 when Martin County Sheriff's Office deputies arrived at the KFC parking lot where he had fallen asleep. Someone had reported the vehicle as suspicious, so police were investigating.
When deputies searched his van, they found marijuana, a beer in the cup holder, and a bag with 92 grams of a white powder in it. Deputy Steven O'Leary claimed to have conducted a field drug test on the powder, and said it tested positive for heroin.
"I just looked at him baffled and confused because I had no idea as to where 92 grams of heroin came from inside my van," Crull told WPTV later.
"I really freaked out," he added to WBPF. "I started panicking and didn't really know what to think."
Crull was right to be surprised. He says the alleged heroin was actually laundry detergent. But the truth wouldn't come out until much later. After his arrest, Crull was jailed for 41 days and charged with trafficking heroin. Due to the severity of the charges, there was no way he could afford bond.
"It made the situation very real. [The judge] raised my bond to $100k to half a million dollars, so there was really no way I was getting out of jail," he told WPEC. Crull admits that he's been in trouble with the law before, but nothing this serious. "In the past, when I have gone to jail, it's been something where I knew I wasn't going to be there forever. It's a lot different than going to jail and the charge of trafficking of heroin carries a penalty of 25 years in prison," he explained to WPTV.
Crull was eventually released, though not before he spent Christmas and New Year's behind bars, after the sheriff's office tested the "heroin" again and discovered the truth. The trafficking charge was dropped, as was the count of marijuana possession.
This sort of story is more common than you might think. Reason has previously written about police misidentifying cotton candy and donut glaze for meth. In another case, North Carolina police bragged about a massive fentanyl bust, only to learn later that they had confiscated 13 pounds of sugar. The culprit in each of these cases were field test kits that provided false positives. Washington Post journalist (and former Reason staffer) Radley Balko even has a handy list of some of the things misidentified as drugs by field tests.
Crull's case, meanwhile, may have been part of a larger scandal that had nothing to do with malfunctioning field drug tests. The arresting deputy, O'Leary, has been fired after the sheriff's office discovered other discrepancies. In three recent narcotics arrests, O'Leary claimed field tests had revealed drugs. Further crime lab testing revealed that wasn't true.
O'Leary, who had been a Martin County sheriff's deputy since February 2018, had made about 80 drug arrests before being terminated. All of those are now under review, and 11 people, including Crull, have already been freed.
"It would have been a travesty to risk leaving anyone in jail," Sheriff William Snyder said at a press conference Monday, explaining that some of those released did have drugs in their possession, just not as much as O'Leary had initially claimed.
"It's better that 100 guilty people go free than one innocent person goes to jail," Snyder added. "Our goal is always justice, and there was more than enough reasonable doubt on our part on all those arrests that we would not have left anyone in jail one more minute."