Police departments in Georgia and around the country issue officers with kits they can use to conduct roadside drug tests. The kits are popular because they are inexpensive and simple to use, but they are also highly unreliable. While the results of these tests are not usually admissible in court, they do provide police with the probable cause they need to make arrests. This worries civil rights advocacy groups as the vast majority of criminal defendants enter into plea agreements long before their cases go to trial.
In March 2017, prosecutors in Nevada vacated the convictions of five people who were charged with drug possession in Las Vegas between 2011 and 2013; they were convicted after roadside drug tests identified substances found in their vehicles or on their persons as cocaine. Subsequent tests conducted in a laboratory revealed that the substances were benign. However, all of these individuals pleaded guilty.
Wrongful narcotics convictions based on roadside drug tests have also been overturned in Oregon and Texas. The shortcomings of roadside drug-testing kits were detailed in a report submitted to the Department of Justice in 2014, but police departments continue to use them.
Cotton candy identified as methamphetamine
A Georgia woman spent three months in jail on drug trafficking charges after a roadside drug test identified a blue substance in her vehicle as methamphetamine. The substance was actually cotton candy. The woman was incarcerated because she was unable to pay a $1 million bond. In 2017 alone, the type of kit used by the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office deputy who arrested the woman identified benign substances as illegal drugs at least 145 times in Georgia.
Consenting to searches
In the Georgia case, the deputy found the suspicious substance in the woman’s vehicle during a consensual search. The woman likely gave the deputy permission to look inside her car because she knew she had not committed any drug crimes and had nothing to hide. However, experienced criminal defense attorneys may advise individuals pulled over by the police to refuse consent to search their vehicles. Legal professionals may also advise individuals under suspicion to remain silent and ask for an attorney if they are taken into custody.