DOUGLASVILLE, Ga. - The FOX 5 I-Team reveals a field drug test kit popular among law enforcement officers actually turned out to be wrong more than 140 times across our state.
And that's in just one year. False positives implicated innocent people, jailed for crimes like drug possession or drug trafficking when they really had things like air freshener or vitamins.
The disposable kits -- often called NIK tests -- cost around two dollars each. An officer in the field drops some of the suspicious substance into the packet, breaks three ampules of chemicals in a particular order and then watches to see whether the solution matches the color preprinted on the package. The biggest manufacturer of the kits is Sirchie International, based in North Carolina.
But even Sirchie says don't take their word for it. On every box is this warning: "ALL TEST RESULTS MUST BE CONFIRMED BY AN APPROVED ANALYTICAL LABORATORY!"
So how often does a lab reverse those field test findings? A lot more than you might think. The FOX 5 I-Team obtained every negative drug test report from the GBI Crime Lab in 2017, then researched to find out how many of those cases began with a positive NIK test. We confirmed 145 false positives, wrongly implicating Georgians of all races in all parts of our state. The field tests got it wrong 11 times for heroin, 24 times for ecstasy, 40 times for cocaine and 64 times for methamphetamines. The remainder involved false positives for other drugs like fentanyl, amphetamines, and codeine.
In each case, the charges were ultimately dropped. But the damage had already been done.
Douglas County sheriff's deputies pulled over a Villa Rica teenager one night for failure to maintain his lane. On dash cam video, you can see the deputy question why the 19-year-old seemed nervous. Turns out, the teenager had just to moved to Douglas County two weeks earlier. His father is a chaplain in the federal prison system; his mother, a school counselor.
"Is there anything in the car that's illegal?" the deputy asks.
"No, you can search it." the teenager replies.
Inside the SUV, deputies would find a scattering of white powdery flakes in a footlocker along with some purple gloves. They put the flakes in a field test kit. They said the results came back positive for methamphetamines.
"That powdery substance right there in your car showed a positive response from a field test for methamphetamines," the deputy points out.
"I have no idea what that was," replies the teenager. "How am I supposed to know?"
"It's in your vehicle, sir."
He would wind up in the Douglas County jail that night charged with felony drug possession. His mother can still remember the phone call.
"They say I have drugs. And mommy I don't have any drugs," Erika Keel recounted. "Mommy, I didn't do anything."
The family says what the field test claimed was meth was likely cleaning supplies left over from moving their daughter into a new apartment. There was no other evidence of drug use in the SUV. It would take 18 months before the case was ultimately dropped... their son unable to get a summer job or travel out of state because of the pending felony. They say this was his first encounter with law enforcement.
"We need to make sure we have true evidence," Ms. Keel insisted. "And those test kits are not true evidence."
Georgia Tech police stopped a man for driving with a suspended registration. They found a small clear packet of white balls inside his car. On the dashcam video, they question the driver.
"What's in the dime bag?"
"Sir you can test it. I promise it's not anything. I have these gold teeth from a Halloween store. And that's what it is under the box. I promise you."
They tested it all right. Twice. According to the officer's reading of the NIK test, what the driver insisted was packing material came back positive for ecstasy. That driver went to jail on felony possession with intent to distribute.... charges later dropped when the Crime Lab found "no controlled substances." In August, Georgia Tech police stopped using field tests.
Our investigation discovered departments across Georgia making felony arrests based on the test results, even though the suspect insisted what tested positive for drugs was actually drywall... soap... religious sand... weight gain powder... air freshener... candle wax.
Each time, the state lab ultimately determined no controlled substances. All charges dismissed.
Last year, the Douglas County sheriff's office bought a $30,000 handheld mass spectrometer to test for suspicious drugs in the field, reducing their dependence on the NIK tests.
Sgt. Jesse Hambrick began working drugs 25 years ago, employing field test kits hundreds of times. While he won't second-guess his deputy's actions the night that Villa Rica teenager was arrested, he agrees it's a mistake for cops to hang all their probable cause on a two-dollar test kit.
"As a narcotics investigator, that kit only confirms what I already know," Hambrick pointed out. "But if we have officers out there who aren't sure what they know and using that kit to confirm their suspicions, I mean that's a whole different mentality."
A mentality that forgets the pain of the words felony drug arrest.