Police departments across the nation often rely on portable chemical tests to determine whether or not suspicious substances are illegal drugs like cocaine or methamphetamine. The kits are inexpensive and simple for law enforcement officers to use, but the results they produce are not always borne out by more thorough toxicology testing. Portable chemical tests have identified donut glaze as methamphetamine and tortilla flour as cocaine, and a Florida Department of Law Enforcement study showed that more than one in five of the substances identified as methamphetamine by officers in the field were later revealed to be innocuous.

A husband and wife truck driving team spent two months fighting for their innocence after a routine check at an Arkansas army base led to cocaine possession charges. Police were called in when sandwich bags containing a white powder were discovered in the truck. Responding officers say that they tested the unknown powder several times using two different chemical kits, which all identified the unknown powder as the Schedule II drug cocaine. Later tests proved that the substance was actually baking powder as the drivers had claimed.

The couple involved paid a heavy price for the police mistake. In addition to spending part of the summer behind bars, the couple’s truck was impounded and they also lost the security clearance needed to make deliveries to military bases and other secure facilities. Media reports indicate that the couple was finally able to reclaim their truck from an impound lot after about two months of wrangling.

Experienced criminal defense attorneys will likely be familiar with the problems associated with portable drug testing kits, and they may demand more vigorous toxicology testing in cases where these kits have been used. Defense attorneys could also object to prosecutorial calls for remand during arraignment hearings when drug charges are not substantiated by compelling physical evidence.

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