Faulty drug tests sending thousands to jail each year

Posted July 15

ProPublica released an investigation that shows a $2 drug test many police officers use is easily misinterpreted and prone to errors. (Deseret Photo)

A drug test commonly used by police officers on roadside stops may be sending people to jail based on erroneous results.

ProPublica released an investigation Thursday that shows the $2 drug tests many police officers use is easily misinterpreted and prone to errors. The report said that 74 percent of those convicted of illegal drug possession in Harris County, Texas, did not have any drugs at the time of their arrest and that “scores of them have yet to learn they’ve been proven innocent.”

In 2015, Harris County wrongfully convicted and subsequently exonerated one person for murder and 42 for possessing drugs. The county accounted for one-third of all exonerations in the United States last year, according to The Washington Post.

The investigation also found that many people arrested for a positive drug test will plead guilty to prevent staying in jail any longer, and judges often accept the plea before an official lab report can be done to verify the drug test. Of the 300 cases ProPublica investigated, more than half of those who were proven innocent pleaded guilty less than eight days after their arrest. Some have spent as many as 13 years with the conviction on their record.

Among those arrests, ProPublica found numerous disparities based on race, gender and age. In Houston, 60 percent of individuals wrongfully convicted for illegal drug possession were black, despite representing only 23 percent of city’s population. Fifty-five percent of those convicted were in their early 20s or 30s, leading to limited school and work opportunities. And nearly 84 percent of those wrongfully convicted were men.

There is currently no federal regulation of the drug tests, according to the investigation. And though there’s no exact number of how many wrongful drug convictions there are nationally, ProPublica was able to find error rates for a few other precincts beyond Harris County.

In Las Vegas, for example, 33 percent of cocaine field tests conducted between 2010 and 2013 were false positives. And in Florida, 21 percent of methamphetamine tests were wrong — mostly because police officers misunderstood the labeling on the drug tests.

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