ATLANTA - A FOX 5 Atlanta I-Team investigation into controversial roadside drug tests has garnered a prestigious Peabody Award, considered the top honor in television excellence.
The investigation revealed how a quick, inexpensive way for police to test for suspected drugs actually wound up putting innocent people in jail.
Using the Georgia Open Records law, the FOX 5 I-Team identified 145 false positives covering just one year in our state, including bad arrests that involved items most people might have on their person or in their car: vitamins, headache powder, and cotton candy that wrongly tested positive for ecstasy, cocaine and methamphetamines.
The individual stories were heartbreaking, people who spent weeks or months in jail unable to make bond, losing their jobs, their cars, their homes. The only evidence against them: a false positive field test. Even after the charges were dropped, the innocent continued to be haunted by that felony drug arrest.
In light of the findings, law enforcement agencies across Georgia quickly changed their field test policy, requiring officers to hold off on making an arrest until the crime lab confirmed the results. National organizations have urged similar action. And the International Association of Chiefs of Police is coming up with new guidelines to help their 32,000 members in 152 countries put the value of these test kits in its proper place.
"We're grateful that the Peabody Board of Jurors recognized this investigation has made a clear difference," said FOX 5 I-Team reporter Randy Travis. "Law enforcement put too much trust in these roadside tests. Not anymore."
The Peabody Board of Jurors said this about the investigation: "In a prime example of the ripple effect of excellent local investigate reporting, reporter Randy Travis delves into the reliability of drug-testing kits, known as “$2 Tests,” used by police around the country as a quick, cheap way to analyze suspicious substances in the field. Despite warnings of the tests giving false positives, dashcam videos show how police regularly relied on them to arrest individuals for everyday items such as headache powder, vitamins, or cleaning supplies. The coverage led police departments to drop the tests and compelled professional associations to educate law enforcement, prosecutors, and public defenders on the fallibility of the tests."
The Peabody Awards began in 1940 as a broadcast equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize. This year, only 30 winners were selected from more than 1,200 entries around the world. The awards ceremony will be May 18 in New York City.