A Florida man was taken into custody on drug possession charges in December 2015 after Orlando Police Department officers claimed that suspicious white crystals in his car were methamphetamine. The officers came to this conclusion after using a field drug-testing kit, but they were wrong. More rigorous testing performed at a crime laboratory established that the substance was sugar, which led to the charges against the man being dropped. He was later awarded $37,000 in compensation, but an OPD representative admitted that the kits are still being used.
The man in this case avoided months in prison because he maintained his innocence, but his story is an exception. This is because most individuals facing drug charges plead guilty to avoid the more severe sentences handed down after a trial. This is a problem because substances that have been identified as illegal drugs in the field are not usually tested further when suspects plead guilty. Prosecutors and police officers know that field tests can be extremely unreliable, but the kits remain in use because they are easy to use and inexpensive.
A ProPublica study published in the New York Times in 2016 revealed that thousands of people are sent to prison each year based on this kind of questionable evidence. Since then, prosecutors have overturned hundreds of drug convictions based on field test results. Five narcotics convictions based on field tests were recently overturned in Nevada; all of the suspects involved pleaded guilty even though they were not in possession of illegal drugs. One of them was sent to jail for eight months.
Experienced criminal defense attorneys may advise individuals charged with drug possession not to admit to crimes they did not commit. They may also seek to have narcotics charges dropped if the only evidence supporting the charges are the results of field tests.
Source: NPR, Florida Man Awarded $37,500 After Cops Mistake Glazed Doughnut Crumbs For Meth, Laurel Wamsley, Oct. 16, 2017