Most police and corrections departments in Florida and around the country use chemical field test kits to identify illegal drugs. These kits cost about $2, and they are very easy to use. Police or corrections officers place a substance in a plastic bag containing chemicals, and they look to see if the chemicals change color. The problem is that there are at least 50 legal substances that can produce the same chemical reaction. This makes these kits extremely unreliable, and court around the country are beginning to issue rulings that may put an end to their use.
In September 2017, a California Superior Court judge ruled in a case filed by prison inmates that chemical field test kits did not meet the scientific standards for admissibility. In a case filed by former inmates against the Massachusetts Department of Correction in 2021, evidence was introduced that showed field tests identified benign substances as illegal drugs 38% of the time. This led the judge to refer to the kits as “arbitrary and unlawful guesswork.” Around the country, 131 drug convictions have been overturned because forensic laboratories discovered that field testing kits had produced false results.
In 2015, a Florida man who had been pulled over for speeding was taken into custody on drug offense charges after a field test kit identified a white crystalline substance on the floor of his car as methamphetamine. The substance was actually sugar from a Krispy Kreme donut. The charges against the man were later dismissed, but he spent 10 hours behind bars before he was arraigned and released on bail. In 2016, the city of Orlando agreed to pay the man $37,500 to drop his civil lawsuit.
Expediency over justice
Police and corrections departments know that chemical field test kits are unreliable, but they continue to use them anyway. This suggests that expediency may be more important than justice when individuals or prison inmates are suspected of possessing illegal drugs. The judges who have overturned wrongful drug convictions or determined that portable chemical tests are unreliable and inadmissible should be applauded, and their rulings could be enough to prompt lawmakers to take action.