Roadside Drug Testing: Faulty, Misunderstood, Antiquated, and as Popular as Ever

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
roadside drug testing faulty misunderstood antiquated and as popular as ever

Thousands of innocent Americans are going to jail due to faulty science and prosecutors who take the results of cheap (and error-prone) roadside drug testing equipment as gospel.

That’s the finding of a damning report published in the New York Times with the help of non-profit investigative journalism body ProPublica.

The Nixon-era chemical-testing technology used by police officers to analyze suspicious substances found in vehicles was never supposed to be the last word on a suspect’s guilt or innocence, but that’s what’s happening across the U.S. Backed into a corner, citizens faced with a “positive” test often accept a plea deal for a reduced sentence to get the nightmare over with faster.

Field test kits placed as standard equipment in the trunk of police cruisers cost as little as $2 apiece, and are designed to identify the presence of drugs by having a vial of chemical solution turn a different color when exposed to certain illicit substances. Some tests use one vial, others three.

The problem is, dozens of other chemicals — and even temperature — can trick the test into declaring a false positive. In some cases, officers simply misread the results. Once an unofficial roadside declaration of “guilty” is made, it’s hard to get off the ensuing legal ride. Often, a plea deal for a reduced sentence seems like the only way.

It’s well-known that the tests’ accuracy is limited. The Times report points to a study conducted by Las Vegas authorities, where three year’s worth of positive cocaine tests were re-analyzed. One-third (33 percent) of the tests were false positives. In Florida, data obtained from state law enforcement showed 21 percent of evidence labelled as methamphetamine based on roadside tests wasn’t meth at all. Half of the positive test results were false positives, meaning no drugs were actually found.

When cheap, disposable field test kits started finding their way into police cruiser trunks in the early 1970s, the FBI warned against taking the test results on face value. The U.S. Department of Justice felt the same way, ruling in 1978 that roadside field tests results couldn’t be the sole evidence in a drug case. In a trial, a proper lab, using exact methods, needs to provide the definitive proof.

Most cases don’t reach the trail phase, and the report showed that prosecutors in nine out of 10 major urban centers accept a guilty plea based on roadside test results. It also showed that upwards of 90 percent of felony drug convictions stem from plea deals reached before mandatory laboratory testing occurred.

Clearly, there’s a lot of work needed to reform the practices of the legal system, just as there’s a pressing need to develop better drug testing equipment to protect innocent people’s freedom and livelihoods.

These gears move slowly. When the journalists working on the report examined the products from the nine companies that make and distribute the field kits, three still failed to print warnings issued by the Justice Department 16 years ago. The warnings display the need for officer training and describe the legal weight of test results. (One of the remaining three companies began printing warnings after learning about the looming news story.)

Faulty drug tests aren’t the only thing to worry about when behind the wheel. A driver’s financial assets can be seized with the swipe of a card if they’re suspected of being involved in a crime, even without a criminal charge.

[Image: Richard Bauer/ Flickr]

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  • Lou_BC Lou_BC on Jul 08, 2016

    Canadian cops must be way nicer than American ones. LOL

  • -Nate -Nate on Jul 08, 2016

    "I personally REFUSE to drive even remotely intoxicated (obviously so I don’t risk my $70,000+ cars) but also so I don’t lose my license running over some 4 year old or hitting a family in a soul-less Japanese-import that wasn’t designed to take the impact of a 5000 pound Supercharged iron-block HEMI. WHY CAN’T PEOPLE JUST TRY TO OBEY THE LAW??? I obey the law. despite being called: Uncle Tom Tap dancer for whitey Sambo and a bunch of other things: I have no criminal record I AM RICH and I’m still alive. Biggie and Tupac…not so much." . Gad , I didn't realize , your normal bombast is so appalling I just "ASS-U-ME'D" you are one more New York version of the braggart White guys I grew up with . . FWIW , I agree 1,000 % with "obey the law" . yesterday one of my Teenaged Foster boys , who doesn't smoke weed nor do any other drugs , got pulled up short & hard by the L.A. County sheriffs , a jerk off cowboy outfit if ever one existed . . They made him kneel in the dirt in his clean clothes , hassled him for a while then said: ' it's your jacket , it looks suspicious ' (NOT a thug typ hoodie). . So , I have to explain to him that walking while Black is , indeed a crime in America 2016 , I expect him to bite his tongue and be 1,000 polite and circumspect else I'll have to I.D. him at the Morgue . . Hard lessons to swallow for a 5'9"sixteen year old kid who wears geeky glasses like mine and who's trying to get by. . FWIW , I'm no angel but I managed to remain alive where being White wasn't the smart thing to be , in a large part by not being an a-hole just because . . -Nate

  • Cprescott I remember when Fords were affordable.
  • Cprescott As a once very LOYAL FORD buyer, I had to replace my 22 year old Ford (bought new in 1997) once it finally started to have problems at 180k miles. I would have gladly purchased something like this from Ford but they abandoned me as a car buyer. Oddly, Hyundai still builds cars in a variety of flavors so I became a customer of theirs and am very happy. Likely will consider another once this one gets up in mileage.
  • SCE to AUX A friend once struck a mounted tire that was laying flat in the middle of her lane on the PA Turnpike. She was in a low late-90s Grand Prix, and the impact destroyed the facia, core support, radiators, oil pan, transmission, subframe, and suspension. They fixed it all.
  • Dukeisduke Lol, it's not exactly a Chevrolet SS with Holden badging.
  • Dukeisduke Years ago, I was driving southbound along North Central Expressway (south of Mockingbird Lane, for locals), and watched a tire and wheel fall out of the bed of a pickup (no tailgate), bounce along, then centerpunch the front end of a Honda Accord. It wasn't pretty.