The New York Times Magazine recently ran an interesting article about how a simple roadside chemical test is producing false positive results and sending innocent people to jail.
The story recounts the experiences of Amy Albritton, a victim of an erroneous roadside test. In August of 2010, Albritton and her boyfriend, Anthony Wilson were driving in her car in Houston looking for dinner. They had just checked into a motel after driving to the city from Louisiana because Wilson was looking into a job opportunity. Wilson was behind the wheel when they were pulled over by Houston police because Wilson had apparently failed to signal when changing lanes. When the police officer asked for his license, Wilson stated he didn't have one and was asked to exit the vehicle. The officer, Duc Nguyen, leaned in the car and much to Albritton's surprise claimed he saw a needle. Albritton was asked to consent to a search of her car by Nguyen's partner, David Helms and she agreed.
The Times reported that officers retrieved three things from her car: a needle (which Albritton states she never saw), a box of over the counter pain reliever called BC Powder, and a white crumb on the floor that the officers thought was crack cocaine. Albritton and Wilson, now handcuffed, watched as Helms conducted a roadside chemical test on the crumb. The test would determine if the crumb was, in fact, a drug. Helms placed the crumb in a vial of pink liquid. If the liquid stayed the same color, the substance was not a drug, if it changed color then it was. The vial turned blue.
Because it was Albritton's car, she was the one charged with felony drug possession and booked into jail. Wilson was detained as well but only for driving without a license. Hungry and exhausted, Albritton spoke with a court-appointed defense attorney the next morning while still in jail. She was told that the prosecutor had offered her a deal, 45 days for pleading guilty. The charge could carry a two-year sentence if she went to trial. Though she told her defense attorney she was innocent he stated that the test showed she had drugs. Albritton chose to take the plea deal, doing so before the substances in her car were ever tested by a crime lab.
It wasn't until some six months later that the substances officers collected were finally tested by a crime lab. And her evidence may not have been tested at all, but for the fact that it is the policy of the Houston crime lab to test everything, "even if it took years." Pending cases were given priority but the evidence from guilty pleas would also eventually be tested as well. According to the New York Times this is not always the case, citing , "[a] federal survey in 2013 [that] found that about 62 percent of crime labs do not test drug evidence when the defendant pleads guilty."
The lab tech ran the three items (BC Powder, syringe, and crumb) through the appropriate tests and none of the items tested positive for drugs. The lab found that "the syringe had too little residue on it even to test," the BC Powder was, in fact, BC Powder, and the crumb was not crack cocaine, it was not a controlled substance at all. It might have been food. The roadside test had returned a false positive result.
The point to me made here is tests are not always accurate or reliable. If you or someone you know has been arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence, call Seattle DUI Attorney Aaron Wolff.