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Unreliability of Drug Field Tests

A 2016, report by ProPublica and the New York Times found frequent false positives and user errors by law enforcement administering the most popular drug field tests. Precise error rates are difficult to ascertain, as some test results can be affected by variables such as the weather, user error and lighting conditions. Some studies have shown error rates ranging from 1 in 5 to 1 in 3 false positives.

The ProPublica report also found the most commonly used field tests failed to include warnings about the high false-positive rate, despite United States Justice Department directives to do so. And, disturbingly, the report found more than half of those wrongly charged after a false positive pleaded guilty, leaving many with personally and professionally devastating felony convictions.

Even though the 2016 ProPublica-New York Times report was published and received nationwide attention, police departments across the country, including those in Florida, continue to use the flawed field kids.  A recent article in The Florida Times-Union underscores just how problematic drug field testing can become. 

On December 5, 2018, Matthew Crull was sleeping in his van in a KFC parking lot when he was approached by Martin County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Steven O’Leary.  A search of Crull’s car revealed a plastic bag containing a white powdered substance in the driver’s side door compartment.  That substance – Tide laundry detergent – was field tested by Deputy O’Leary.  O’Leary proclaimed the test showed it to be 92 grams of heroin.

Crull was arrested for trafficking in heroin and held on a $500,00 bond.  He sat in jail for 41 days, all the while missing Christmas and New Year’s with his family and with the specter of a felony conviction and potential 25 year sentence hanging over him.

But, as Crull was in jail a scandal was unfolding at the Martin County Sheriff’s Office involving Deputy O’Leary (who is a former pastor).  The Sheriff discovered O’Leary had made numerous arrests based on substances he claimed field tested positive for illegal drugs, which subsequent laboratory testing confirmed instead to be harmless substances.

Deputy O’Leary subsequently was fired.  Furthermore, many of the cases he had worked on that resulted in criminal drug convictions were dropped.  To his credit, the Sheriff even agreed to assist those who were wrongly arrested by O’Leary to expunge their records and to pay their court costs.

While Crull’s case is a rather extreme example of potential problems with drug field testing, those tests are often unreliable even when administered by competent, honest officers.  The Washington Post has made a list of benign substances that have field tested positive for illegal drugs.  That list includes sage, chocolate chip cookies, motor oil, spearmint, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, tortilla dough, deodorant, billiards chalk, patchouli, flour, eucalyptus, breath mints, Jolly Ranchers, Krispy Kreme donut glaze, and loose-leaf tea. The latter item prompted a SWAT raid on an innocent couple and their two children.

If you were arrested based on a positive drug field test, make sure your lawyer ensures that test was confirmed by a properly conducted formal laboratory test by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement or other reputable testing facility.  If there is any doubt about the accuracy of what law enforcement believes you were in possession of, contact a Jacksonville criminal attorney with knowledge about, and experience with, the science of drug testing in both the laboratory and in the field.  Doing so will give you the best chance of avoiding a felony conviction and significant jail or prison time for drug possession or trafficking.  Please call me for a free consultation to discuss how I can help you with your drug, controlled substance, heroin or cocaine case in Duval, Clay, Nassau, Baker or St. Johns Counties.