Most police departments in Rhode Island and around the country issue their officers with small kits that are used to conduct roadside chemical tests. Substances are placed into plastic bags filled with chemicals that change color when they are exposed to illegal drugs. These kits are known to be unreliable, but they are common in law enforcement because they are inexpensive and easy to use. According to a study released on Jan 9 by the University of Pennsylvania’s Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, the use of these inexpensive but unreliable tests leads to as many as 30,000 wrongful arrests each year.
The researchers behind the study reached this conclusion after discovering that roadside testing kits are involved in more than half of the 1.5 million or so drug arrests made each year in the United States. The kits are unreliable because dozens of benign substances trigger the same chemical reactions as illegal drugs. In Florida, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office ordered its deputies to stop using the kits after learning that several common over-the-counter cold medications turned the chemicals the same color as cocaine. In Massachusetts, a judge said the kits were “only marginally better than a coin-flip.”
Many of the people who face drug charges because roadside testing kits identified benign substances as illegal drugs spend weeks, months or even years behind bars. Defendants are pressured into pleading guilty to avoid severe punishment, and the substances that led to their arrests are rarely subjected to more rigorous testing. In Texas alone, 212 people charged with drug possession because of invalid roadside tests pleaded guilty between 2004 and 2015.
The roadside drug testing kits used by police departments across the United States are easy to use, inexpensive and unreliable. They provide police officers with probable cause to make an arrest, but prosecutors do not rely on them in court because they produce too many false positives. Prosecutors demand laboratory tests in these situations, and so should individuals who are taken into custody because of roadside drug tests.