If a drug field test comes back positive, that is generally considered enough to justify an arrest. Field tests are inadmissible in most courts, so further testing must be performed by a lab. Unfortunately, lab results can take months to come back. If a field test is inaccurate, an innocent person could be stuck in jail for a long time before the inaccuracy is discovered.
False positives may be responsible for 80 people being arrested on drug charges in Florida recently. One, Matthew C., was arrested for allegedly possessing 92 grams of heroin.
A Sheriff's deputy found Matthew sleeping in his van with an open can of beer in the cup holder. During a vehicle search, the deputy found a baggie full of white powder. A field test allegedly turned up positive for heroin.
That white powder was actually laundry detergent. Nevertheless, Matthew was booked on charges carrying a 25-year prison term. His bail was set at $500,000. He pled not guilty but was forced to spend 41 days in jail.
He was released after the it was discovered the deputy routinely relied on falsely positive field tests or perhaps simply lied about the tests being positive.
Matthew's case was dropped and other drug cases may also have to be dropped, as well. The now-fired deputy may now be facing criminal charges for false arrest.
It doesn't take a crooked cop for drug field tests to be inaccurate
There are documented problems with these drug field tests. In fact, the National Bureau of Standards and the Justice Department have both stated that these field tests, which haven't changed much since the 1970s, should never be relied upon as evidence.
According to a 2016 report by ProPublica and the New York Times, there are many examples of false positives. The test for cocaine, for example, can come out positive not only from cocaine but also from over 80 other substances, most completely legal and harmless. Other tests can be invalid because the officer used the wrong methodology. Cold, heat and poor lighting can affect the tests or their interpretation.
The tests appear to have significant error rates. For example, a Florida study found that 21 percent of substances police listed as methamphetamine were not meth and, of those, half were not even illegal.
And, since 90 percent or more of criminal cases are resolved by plea bargain, many defendants are essentially being convicted on field tests alone.
If you are arrested based on a drug field test and believe you are innocent, do not give up hope. Contact an experienced criminal defense attorney and tell your story. They can protect your rights and fight charges based on inaccurate field tests.