Going to jail all because of bad evidence. Our WAAY 31 I-Team Investigation examines field drug test kits and to what extent law enforcement here in Alabama depends on the results.
In other states, the tests have put innocent people in handcuffs. Sometimes, they even wind up in jail facing felony charges.
Police lights in your rearview mirror: when it happens, it can ruin your day.
After one of her clients gets a ticket, Tina Denny often plays therapist. A simple traffic ticket can be all the buzz at Tina’s Barber Shop. “Speeding, usually,” Denny told us.
The anxiety caused by those flashing lights is something nearly every driver can relate to. “I hope not to see them,” she told us. “I don’t like it.”
Getting pulled over for breaking the speed limit can make your heart pound. But, your legal heartache can get much worse. In some states, notably neighboring Georgia, traffic stops wrongly led to drug arrests. That’s after some police officers used field drug test kits.
At least 145 times in 2017 while testing substances like drywall, soap and air fresheners, the roadside kits told Georgia officers they’d found meth, heroin or cocaine.
“To my knowledge, we've never had a false positive,” Tony McElyea told the WAAY 31 I-Team. McElyea is commander of the Madison Morgan County Drug Task Force.
“We don't want to put somebody in jail that is not possessing the actual narcotic,” McElyea said. “So, we use those field test kits to confirm or deny whether something is an illegal substance.”
McElyea says a key difference with his team -- and across most of the state -- is reliance.
Alabama law does not allow prosecutors to rely only on the kits’ test results for evidence – just probable cause to look for more evidence. So, judges need more than the roadside test kit result to convict.
In fact, a police patrol officer typically wouldn’t even have a kit. They rely on area drug task forces. And the task force members first rely on their extensive training and typically decades of experience.
"Then, use the field test kits in order to confirm what their belief is -- what the drug is,” McElyea explained “Then, once we do that, we submit it to the department of forensics sciences.”
Here in Huntsville and at its other locations, Alabama’s Department of Forensic Sciences is the only internationally accredited provider of forensic lab services in the state. All of Alabama’s 450-plus law enforcement agencies routinely submit drug evidence for analysis.
Some test kit manufacturers warn on the package: “ALL TEST RESULTS MUST BE CONFIRMED BY AN APPROVED ANALYTICAL LABORATORY!”.
In Alabama, it’s not the test kit itself, but the actual suspected drug evidence that the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences analyzes.
Director Angelo Della Manna told WAAY 31, bottom line, field drug test kits are simply screening tools to begin the process of gathering admissible evidence.
That’s how McElyea’s drug team uses the kits. “It's just like anything else on an officer’s duty belt,” he said. “It's just a tool at our disposal that we use to develop probable cause for an arrest.”
Tony Mcelyea told us Alabama law enforcement has avoided the pitfalls of relying too heavily on field drug test kits. Now, his team is about to get a high-tech and highly reliable laser drug detector called a TruNarc.
“It's just one more tool at our disposal to say that we confirmed whether or not something is or is not an illegal substance.”
Back at the barber shop. Tina Denny told us, “Oh, that’s great.” She’s thankful folks in Alabama likely don’t have to deal with false accusations at simple traffic stops. “I think they’re doing it right.”
The Department of Forensic Sciences told WAAY 31, scientifically, its results have no chance for false positives.