It is common in traffic stops where officers suspect the presence of drugs to search the driver and request a search of the vehicle. If an officer finds a substance he or she suspects to be an illicit drug, they rely on a roadside drug test to make the call. The results of these $2 kits, which have largely remained the same in design and process since they were first released in 1973, can mean the difference between a person being released at the scene or being arrested on felony charges.
In a troubling expose on these kits, The New York Times delved into the accuracy of these kits and what they have meant to the lives of many of the 1.2 million people who are arrested annually in the U.S. on illegal drug possession charges. While those arrested are presumed innocent until proven guilty, these cheap testing kits are often a key deciding factor in how public defenders fight these cases and how prosecutors pursue them.
One analysis of the accuracy of the kits was conducted by the laboratory system operated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). What they discovered was that more than 20 percent of the evidence police listed as “methamphetamine” in fact was NOT methamphetamine. In fact, half of the false positives weren’t even drugs at all. A tracking by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office revealed 15 false methamphetamine positives just in the first seven months of 2014. Further, in combing through department records, officers had been given ambiguous instructions on how to conduct the tests and some misunderstood which colors indicated a positive and which indicated a negative. Continue reading