One of our worst nightmares is being wrongly arrested by the police and getting lost in the criminal (in)justice system. Thanks to a cheap drug test kit, many folks around the country have had the pleasure of being arrested, having their cars impounded, losing their jobs and their apartments for no reason at all.
Factor in the pressure some folks have to plead guilty by appointed attorneys in order to get out of jail quicker and you have a situation that should shock the conscience of our nation. Yet it's something we are more than happy to sweep under the rug.
Last week the New York Times Magazine ran an article about the real life aftermath of the cheap roadside test kit focusing on the ordeal faced by one Amy Albritton from Louisiana. Her nightmare occurred right here in my hometown, Houston.
She and a friend were stopped by officers when they were in town for her friend's job interview. One officer claimed to have found a syringe needle in the visor and a (coerced) search of the car then turned up a powder-like substance (that Ms. Albritton said was BC headache powder) and a grain of something on the floorboard.
The officer who broke open the test kit claimed it showed the grain of something was, in fact, a piece of crack cocaine. Ms. Albritton was arrested (her friend disclaimed any knowledge of the substance and, since it was her car, she took the ride downtown) and charged with possession of a controlled substance - a state jail felony punishable by up to two years in prison.
There are no established error rates for the field tests, in part because their accuracy varies so widely depending on who is using them and how. In Las Vegas, authorities re-examined a sampling of cocaine field tests conducted between 2010 and 2013 and found that 33 percent of them were false positives. Data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement lab system show that 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. In one notable Florida episode, Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies produced 15 false positives for methamphetamine in the first seven months of 2014. When we examined the department’s records, they showed that officers, faced with somewhat ambiguous directions on the pouches, had simply misunderstood which colors indicated a positive result.
The next morning Ms. Albritton met with a gentlemen who told her he was her court-appointed attorney. While she claimed innocence, he told her that the prosecutor would offer her 45 days (under a provision of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure that allows certain felonies to be punished as misdemeanors) and that she would be in jail for much longer if she actually chose to fight her case. She gave in and pled guilty before Judge Vanessa Velasquez.
A later test of the substances by the Houston Police Department Crime Lab (who apparently tested substances from closed cases on a regular basis but never notified anyone of the results - among other sins that have been documented previously) showed that the substance in question was not crack cocaine. The tests also showed that there was nothing in the needle and that the powdery substance was BC powder.
All of this was a day late and a dollar short for Ms. Albritton who lost her job and was now hamstrung with a felony conviction due to her wrongful arrest.
Now, if we know that these kits are inherently unreliable and that their accuracy is affected by light and temperature and other environmental factors, why do we allow these tests to be the basis of criminal charges that have serious ramifications for the people involved? Why aren't we waiting for the results of actual lab tests before we file charges against someone? Why are we holding folks in jail for non-violent drug offenses simply because they can't afford to post a bond? And why the fuck are attorneys pressuring their "clients" to plead guilty without the benefit of a lab report?
Field tests provide quick answers. But if those answers and confessions cannot be trusted, Charles McClelland, the former Houston police chief, says, officers should not be using them. During an interview in March, McClelland said that if he had known of the false positives Houston’s officers were generating, he would have ordered a halt to all field testing departmentwide. Police officers are not chemists, McClelland said. “Officers shouldn’t collect and test their own evidence, period. I don’t care whether that’s cocaine, blood, hair.”
Another question, posed by former Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland, is why do we allow the folks who want to arrest someone to run the test that determines if someone gets arrested? Shouldn't that testing be done by someone who is (nominally) not a part of the police department?
Yet another question is why we continue to charge people who possess trace amounts of drugs with felony offenses?
This is reality for a sizable portion of the population yet you will never hear a politician talking about how innocent people get caught up in our criminal (in)justice system. You will never hear then talk about the gross inequities in how different people are treated. Instead you will hear nothing but the common platitudes of those who claim to be tough on crime in order to please white suburbanites whose idea of a colorblind society is an all-white neighborhood.