Many law enforcement and corrections departments in Missouri and around the country use portable test kits to determine whether or not suspicious substances are illegal drugs. These kits are made up of plastic bags containing chemicals that change color when exposed to drugs like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, which makes them very easy to use. The problem is that dozens of legal substances trigger the same chemical reactions. This has led to prison inmates being placed in solitary confinement and motorists being taken into custody on drug charges because field test kits identified benign substances as illegal drugs.
Courts take action
Field test kits only cost about $2 each, which may explain why they continue to be used despite their reliability issues. However, courts have started to take notice of their shortcomings. When the Massachusetts Department of Correction was sued by former inmates who had been punished because field test kits identified benign substances in their mail as illegal drugs, the judge presiding over the case referred to the plastic bags of chemicals as “arbitrary and unlawful guesswork.”
More than 130 individuals convicted on drug charges have been exonerated because more reliable tests established that field tests kits had identified substances like sugar or baking soda as illegal drugs. The leading manufacturer of field test kits concedes that at least 50 legal substances can cause the same chemical reactions as illegal drugs. Independent testing suggests that this number is far too low. The kits contain cobalt thiocyanate because it turns blue when it is exposed to cocaine, but more than 80 benign substances including household cleaners and acne medication trigger the same reaction.
The unreliability of field test kits is a pressing issue because the vast majority of people taken into custody on drug charges enter into plea agreements. This is a problem when charges are based on the results of field tests because plea offers are usually made and accepted before suspicious substances are subjected to more rigorous testing. If you are ever arrested because a plastic bag of chemicals identifies a substance as an illegal drug, you should wait until more reliable tests have been performed before you consider pleading guilty.