Corrections departments and law enforcement agencies in North Carolina and around the country equip their officers with drug test kits because they only cost about $2 and are very easy to use. All corrections or police officers have to do is place suspicious substances in plastic bags and then watch to see if the chemicals inside the bags change color. The problem is that dozens of benign and quite legal substances trigger the same chemical reactions. This has led to several lawsuits and a series of legal rulings that suggest roadside drug testing may soon be a thing of the past.
Lawsuits and legal challenges
The first judicial blow for the makers of portable drug test kits came in September 2017 when a judge in California ruled that the plastic bags of chemicals did not meet the admissibility standards for scientific evidence. That ruling prevents prosecutors from presenting the results of roadside chemical tests in cases involving drug charges. When a group of former inmates sued the Massachusetts Department of Correction for using field test kits to screen inmate mail, one of the first things the presiding judge did was issue an order that prevented the further use of the kits. In his ruling, the judge described using the kits as “arbitrary and unlawful guesswork.”
Drug test kits are so unreliable because so many common substances can trigger the same chemical reactions as illegal drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. The country’s largest field test manufacturer concedes that at least 50 common and legal substances can be identified by the chemicals as controlled substances. These common substances include acne medications, household cleaners, sugar and chocolate. The kits can also provide false positives if the bags of chemicals are broken in the wrong order or are exposed to extremely hot or extremely cold temperatures.
Courts have overturned more than 130 narcotics convictions because field drug tests are unreliable. Most of these cases involved defendants who pleaded guilty at preliminary hearings. The only way to avoid these miscarriages of justice is to follow the example set by the judge in California and prevent this kind of evidence from being used to support indictments.