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The field drug tests might not be used throughout the country, but 90 percent of jurisdictions still allow prosecutors to accept a guilty plea based on their results—and it’s a problem too many people are ignoring.
Recently, the New York Times’ Ryan Gabrielson and Topher Sanders wrote a detailed exposé on the use of field drug tests, their efficiency, and the many lives they have ruined over the years—and it’s terrifying.
U.S. police officers, the New York Times reports, are taught early on that making a drug arrest on the spot requires the use of an elementary chemical test. These tests aren’t admissible in court, but since the majority of drug cases are resolved by plea deals, many innocent and poor people go to jail simply out of fear.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), many prosecutors “strong-arm defendants by offering them shorter prison terms if they plead guilty,” giving them an incentive to resolve their cases by admitting guilt. “Plea bargaining” and taking the case to trial, HRW continues, “mean higher sentences for defendants who go to trial.” Out of fear of being convicted, many innocent arrestees prefer to admit guilt and roll out of jail sooner than wasting their money—and time—on proving their innocence.
A case highlighted by the Times illustrates just how easily the $2 drug tests can be used to frame the innocent while keeping them from pursuing justice, all because the system is rigged from the start.
Amy Albritton spent 21 days in jail after a traffic stop in 2010. The officers who pulled her over searched her vehicle and found nothing, except for an empty syringe and some crumbs. The “suspicious” powder was subject to a field drug test, and the result came up positive. To law enforcement, that’s all it took to lock Albritton in a county jail over the possession of crack cocaine. Tech Dirt reports that “Albritton was taken to a county jail where she spent the next three weeks after pleading guilty to possession, rather than face a trial and a possible sentence of two years.”
While the crumbs had been sent on to a lab for verification prior to Albrittron’s release, her guilty plea was enough to keep prosecutors from checking whether the substance found in her car was, indeed, illegal. For at least six months after Albritton completed her sentence, crumbs collected from her vehicle sat untested in a Houston crime lab—until Ahtavea Barker, a forensic scientist, pulled the item for a closer look. The subsequent tests showed “[t]he powder was a combination of aspirin and caffeine — the ingredients in BC Powder, the over-the-counter painkiller,” not crack or cocaine.
“Albritton was innocent,” Tech Dirt added, “but with a guilty plea, she now had a criminal record.”
With a felony under her belt, Albritton lost everything.
First, she lost her job as a manager of the Frances Place Apartments, a “well-maintained brick complex” she had managed for two years before her arrest. Then, she lost her apartment, since free housing was part of her compensation. When she came back from jail, her “furniture and other belongings were put out on the side of the road.” After unsuccessfully trying to convince her employer she had been wrongly arrested, she focused on helping her son, a wheelchair-bound child who requires “regular sessions of physical and occupational therapy.”
A job as a rental complex manager was ideal for her because she needed time, flexibility, and a safe place to house her son. “But now, because of her new felony criminal record,” the Times explained, “she couldn’t even land an interview at another apartment complex. With a felony conviction, she couldn’t be approved as a renter either.”
Since the incident that destroyed Albritton’s life, the county where she was arrested has made changes that help to prevent similar types of arrests. “Last year,” the Times reports, “Devon Anderson, the current Harris County district attorney, prohibited plea deals in drug-possession cases before the lab has issued a report.” Unfortunately, the publication adds, this change, alone, is not enough. “The labs issue reports in about two weeks, but defendants typically wait three weeks before they can see a judge — enough time to lose a job, lose an apartment, lose everything.”
Tech Dirt concludes the most logical thing to do “would be to discard the faulty tests and develop something far more precise for field testing” so innocent individuals aren’t sent to jail over bogus charges. But until then, “it seems unlikely law enforcement will abandon a product that allows officers to develop probable cause for drug possession arrests.”
The real solution to this matter can only be the total roll back of the war on drugs, which would put an end to many laws that give officers incentives to pull over innocent Americans for “acting suspicious.”
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