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Concerns Remain Over Chemical Field Tests & Drug Crime Cases

By Hager & Schwartz, P.A.

November 23, 2016

Over the past several years, law enforcement agencies have received criticism over field drug testing and the lack of training officers receive to use them. Among notable mishaps, numerous cases in Hillsborough County were dismissed in 2014 after a crime lab determined samples from the inexpensive test kits were not controlled substances as officers believed. It was also soon discovered that the errors were the result of officers who misinterpreted test results.

The blunder did garner attention, but more importantly, it served as a reminder that law enforcement and the tools they use are not infallible. Chemical field tests are used by thousands of law enforcement agencies across Florida and the nation to arrest, prosecute, and ultimately convict suspects, often by way of plea agreements, so many experts and advocates have persistent concerns over their use.

Although the use of field drug test kits is widespread, many of the Florida officers who use them have little to no formal training in administering or interpreting them accurately. There is also typically no requirement to have officers trained. Some agencies across the U.S. do offer formal training for field tests, and others only allow certain certified controlled substances officers to administer them. The certification process can be as simple as a two-day course, with a few hours of training each year for recertification. Federal studies and journalistic investigations find that most agencies leave it to officers to handle and interpret the science on their own.

Field Drug Tests & Drug Crime Convictions

Chemical field tests and the evidence they produce are used frequently to arrest and convict numerous people every year for mostly low-level drug offenses. Over 90% of these drug crime convictions result from guilty pleas, according to statistics. A ProPublica report also notes that most chemical field test evidence is never confirmed by a certified crime lab, yet a large number of convictions rely on the test results to compel suspects into taking plea agreements. Even though field tests are inadmissible in a trial in almost all jurisdictions (prosecutors have to present more reliable tests), accused individuals plead guilty in overwhelming numbers after being charged based on the field test results – results that are often unverified and performed by untrained officers

Some substances initially suspected of being a certain type of drug – such as methamphetamine, do end up in the Florida state’s crime lab. According to statewide data, however, lab tests reveal a large margin of error in submissions of suspected methamphetamine. Of all submissions suspected as meth submitted to Florida crime labs in 2015, 21% turned out not to be.

Law enforcement agencies have come to rely too heavily on field drug tests, even when the science and the way they’re administered are open to scrutiny. The tests are simple in nature and require officers to follow steps, place materials in a bag, and interpret a range of changes in color that correspond to a chart of controlled substances. Many experts agree that chemical field tests require training and best practices governed by policy and research.

Your Right to Challenge the Evidence Against You

Our criminal justice system is based on the presumption of innocence, and the requirement that the government proves its case against a defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. As defense attorneys, it is our job to challenge the government’s case against the accused, and that includes calling into question the legitimacy of evidence presented by the state.

At Hager & Schwartz, P.A. our criminal defense attorneys are former prosecutors who have represented hundreds of clients charged with drug crimes across South Florida. We know how these arrests take place, how evidence is and should be obtained, and how prosecutors work to charge and convict. If you or someone you love has been charged with a drug crime – whether it be a misdemeanor, felony, or federal offense – you can be confident about working with our proven team. Contact us today to discuss your case during an immediate consultation.