COMMERCE, Ga - The Commerce Police Department placed one of its officers on paid administrative leave after he made a drug arrest using a roadside test the police chief said was inaccurate.
It's just the latest example the FOX 5 I-Team has uncovered over the years; Law enforcement agencies in Georgia putting innocent people in jail because of a false positive drug field test on some common item found during a traffic stop.
PFC James Motley was charged with drug possession because police said a disposable drug test told him his melatonin was really fentanyl. The charges were eventually dropped. (Commerce police video)
This false arrest involves a soldier - Private First Class James Motley.
"James would never have any drugs," his mom Shana Plazio told the FOX 5 I-Team. "He was on his way to his Army base."
The 18-year-old Virginia man was driving overnight to Fort Polk, Louisiana. He pulled into a Commerce truck stop to fuel up and instead entered a perplexing world where police once again put too much trust in a $2 test.
Shana Plazio said her son should never have been arrested if the evidence against him was only a positive roadside drug test. (Family photo)
Commerce police pulled over Motley at 2:32 a.m. on Jan. 4 because his temporary car tags didn't show up in their national database. Motley explained he had just bought the Chevrolet Cruz from Carmax and was moving his belongings to Louisiana ahead of his newlywed wife's arrival.
But Officer Cody Wood was already looking for more. Here's the exchange from the police bodycam:
Officer Wood: "So you bought it yesterday?"
Motley: "I did."
Officer Wood: "Is there any reason why your eyes would be dilated? Your pupils?"
Motley: "I don't really know. Just bright."
Officer Wood: "Anything in your vehicle?"
Motley: "Um... just a lot of home goods I'm taking."
Officer Wood: "Anything illegal?"
Motley: "Not at all."
Officer Wood: "Do I have permission to search your vehicle?"
For the next hour - while Motley stood watching in the nighttime cold - Wood plowed through the Chevy, eventually finding a bottle of Spring Valley Melatonin sold at Walmart.
Commerce police tested the melatonin twice. Both times the officer said it came back positive for fentanyl. (Commerce Police video)
But two roadside drug tests convinced Wood the bottle really contained fentanyl. He showed the positive results to Motley.
Motley: "Where did you find that at?"
Officer Wood: "The melatonin bottle."
Motley: "Melatonin bottle? That's my wife's. I don't know how all that works."
Officer Wood: "Does your wife use drugs?"
Motley: "No! Could it be some chemical in there that triggers it?"
The test results alone were good enough evidence for Commerce police. Motley was booked into the Jackson County Jail charged with drug possession. The sample was sent off to the state crime lab, which usually takes months to report back.
Motley's mother Shana got the call in the middle of the night: her son was in a Georgia jail charged with a felony.
"I can’t tell you…" she said, struggling to express her emotions. "I can’t even explain."
The family bonded him out two days later and put him on a plane to Fort Polk.
The Commerce police chief tested the same brand of melatonin and also got a positive reading for fentanyl. That's when he ordered the charges dropped.
Commerce Police Chief Ken Harmon decided to do his own test, going to Walmart and buying the same container of Melatonin. When his test also came back positive for fentanyl, the chief ordered Motley’s charges dropped.
A Walmart spokesperson told the FOX 5 I-Team their suppliers comply with "robust" testing prior to shipping and "none of our private brand dietary supplements are produced in facilities that also produce fentanyl products."
"It broke my heart for two weeks until the charges were dropped," said Plazio. "I can't explain to you the heartbreak... when something like that happens to your child. And you think their life is ruined."
Commerce Police Chief Ken Harmon ordered a stop to the use of roadside drug tests.
Commerce police immediately stopped all use of the roadside test kits.
Sadly, what happened outside that truck stop is not unique. Many police departments in Georgia have no policy when it comes to roadside drug tests, allowing an officer to make an arrest solely on the results alone.
A recent study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania School of Law suggests nearly 1,000 Georgians each year are falsely arrested because law enforcement wrongly trusted the results of a roadside drug test - 30,000 across the country.
"Once the result happens and the officers see that there’s a positive result in that test, that kind of stops the investigation," said the study's lead author Ross Miller.
In fact, the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police Chiefs admitted only 26% of their membership surveyed said they require additional evidence — like a crime lab report — before making an arrest.
"If you legitimately thought this was fentanyl, take James' information, go test it and if it comes back positive you know you can find him at Fort Polk, Louisiana," advised Plazio.
"They sit in jail for who knows how long and their lives are completely flipped upside down for nothing!" Plazio said.
Commerce police officers questioning James Motley.
But even though there was no other evidence of drug use in Motley's car, a Commerce cop and his supervisor trusted what they saw.
As Wood took Motley into custody, he assured his suspect about the evidence against him.
Officer Wood: "I even looked up the test we use, its accuracy -- at least what I read online -- it's like damn near perfect. I'm not saying it's perfect. It's damn near perfect."
But a spokesperson for the drug field test manufacturer MMC International sent the FOX 5 I-Team this statement:
"All our tests are presumptive and always require a lab analyzing test. It happens that other substances may react positive on our tests (or other chemical tests of other manufacturers). There are millions of substances in the world, and it is only logical that some of them can react positively on our drug tests.
The officers need some kind of background of illegal substances otherwise they will test everything they see with field testing kits and that is NOT what these tests are meant for. We always advise if there are any doubts in the results, use our second "confirmation" forensic test (also presumptive but based on immune essay principle).
If there are still doubts, always have the substance analyzed in an accredited laboratory. Our tests are a first quick tool to check if a substance is presumptively a controlled substance, but normally NEVER can be 100% evidence in a court case."