Monday, July 18, 2016

Bad tests, wrongful convictions and justice denied

The following editorial was published by the St. Louis (Missouri) Post-Dispatch on July 16, 2016.

Police in many states, including Missouri, increasingly are using mobile drug tests to perform spot checks during traffic stops. The kits can produce the wrong result in as many as one out of three instances. Americans of all racial and income backgrounds should shudder at the injustices dealt to law-abiding citizens.

Thousands of people may have gone to jail as a result of wrong test results. Arrest and conviction records follow them for the rest of their lives. Yet police officers continue to use the kits.

The New York Times and ProPublica recently reported on the extraordinary rate of “false positives” returned by test kits marketed to police under brand names such as Serchie Nark II. Different kits test for cocaine, marijuana, opioids or methamphetamine.

When a chemical mixture turns a certain color during the test, it signals to police officers that an illegal drug could be present. But the test used for cocaine also can return the same positive color for 80 other compounds, including acne medications and several types of household cleaners.

The high rate of false positives offers more than ample reason to question their continued use. Manufacturers like Serchie now warn that the results should be treated only as preliminary, and more thorough lab tests are required.

The case of Amy Albritton offers a stark example of how quickly such tests can ruin a life. She and a friend were driving to Houston from her home in Louisiana in 2010 when an officer pulled her car over. He asked permission to search her car and came up with a single, white crumb from the floor. His test kit returned the positive color for cocaine.

Thus began Albritton’s nightmare of arrest and negotiations with a prosecutor while she insisted she had not possessed illegal drugs. The result was a plea bargain that left a felony conviction on her record, discoverable whenever she applied for a job or to rent an apartment.

The test was wrong. The crumb, a subsequent test proved, was just a dried-up bit of food.

Years later, the Harris County district attorney’s office admitted the error, but it came far too late for her to recover her shattered life — lost job, lost apartment, a custody battle for her child.

In Houston, 59 percent of those wrongfully convicted because of faulty test kits were black, even though they constitute only 24 percent of the population. It usually requires money and lawyers to get false convictions expunged, and that’s where these injustices reap their biggest toll.

The presumption of innocence forms the basis of our judicial system. A highly flawed commercial field testing system must never be allowed to short-circuit the rights of law-abiding citizens.

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