Police kits often mistake common substances for illegal drugs

While police officers in Minnesota have generally dependable breath testing equipment for suspected drunk drivers, their portable chemical tests for suspected drug possession may not be as reliable. Police departments like these kits because they are easy to use and often cost as little as $2 a piece. However, several leading civil rights advocates and criminal defense attorneys have questioned the quick-ID kits' reliability.

These tests have been known to identify innocuous substances like sugar and flour as Schedule II narcotics. A husband and wife truck driving team spent two months in jail on drug charges after police in Arkansas mistook a bag of baking soda for cocaine in May 2016. In addition, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has admitted that 21 percent of the substances that its roadside drug kits identified as illegal drugs turned out to be innocuous.

The Arkansas case also reveals the kind of hurdles that individuals must sometimes overcome when arresting mistakes are made. Police say that they used two chemical kits and ran four roadside drug tests after an officer noticed a plastic bag containing an unknown white powder. All of these tests reportedly identified the mystery substance as cocaine instead of baking soda. As a result of this mix-up, the couple lost their security clearances and their truck was impounded.

If someone has been wrongly charged due to a faulty quick-ID kit, an attorney could demand that more rigorous and reliable toxicology tests be performed. A lawyer may call for such charges to be dismissed if the more-rigorous tests cannot be performed in a timely manner.

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