Roadside drug tests can be a good tool for police to determine whether someone has broken law and potentially poses a threat to others, but they can also get you locked up for eating a glazed donut.
A Florida man is suing the Orlando Police Department after he was arrested on officers' mistaken claims that he was in possession of crystal methamphetamine. During a traffic stop, the officers noticed a few whitish flakes on the floorboard of Daniel Rushing's car and alleged that they were crystal meth. "I recognized through my 11 years of training and experience as a law enforcement officer the substance to be some sort of narcotic," one of the officers wrote in a report. In fact, it was just some crumbs from the glaze of a Krispy Kreme doughnut Rushing had consumed.
But a field drug test nonetheless indicated that the doughnut glaze tested positive for crystal meth, leading to Rushing being handcuffed, arrested and strip-searched at the county jail. Several weeks later, a state crime lab test exonerated him, but not before he unjustly spent 10 hours locked up in jail and had to post a $2,500 bond.
Such occurrences are shockingly common. These pages discussed several other such cases — including the Minnesota man who spent more than two months in jail because a bag of vitamins in his car tested positive for amphetamines in a police field drug test, and another Florida man who was arrested after the mints he was chewing tested positive for crack cocaine — in an editorial in January.
A 2009 Marijuana Policy Project study found that such tests yielded false positive results 70 percent of the time in a test of 43 candies, over-the-counter medicines, plants and other harmless substances. A six-month investigation done by Fox 13/TV in Tampa, Florida, found similar weaknesses in the test results. "We watched as aspirin, cough medicine, coffee and spices like oregano — and even air — tested positive for illegal drugs," reporter Gloria Gomez said.
To make matters worse, Congress is considering legislation that would allow police to utilize a field test to collect genetic material from detainees and suspects. Under the Rapid DNA Act, which the Senate passed by unanimous consent in June, officers could obtain DNA evidence from a cheek swab, and the results would be checked against the FBI's central DNA database.
This raises troubling privacy concerns, which should give members in the House great pause when they consider the bill. We should not be encouraging police to take DNA evidence from everyone they encounter and building a massive biometric database, particularly with evidence from innocent citizens.
Then there are the accuracy issues. Police officers are not scientists, but even if the Rapid DNA system is easy enough for anyone to use, experience with the roadside drug tests has shown that the results can be far from reliable, resulting in the incarceration of innocent people. Until greater accuracy of such testing can be verified, Congress and local police should not even consider authorizing or using them.
REPRINTED FROM THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER