Cops look for smarter drug field tests, avoid jailing innocent people

Image 1 of 5

Some local narcotics agents believe they've found a better way to test for drugs in the field and avoid sending innocent people to jail.

The FOX 5 I-Team identified more than 30 cases just last year where Georgia officers said a field test kit confirmed illegal drugs. The GBI Central Crime lab later overturned those findings.

Ed McFadden of Lithonia went to jail because pieces of a breath mint tested originally tested positive for crack.

"Never been involved in any type of drugs," he complained to us and the Rockdale County sheriff's deputy who arrested him.

Justin Mallory spent a harrowing month inside the Fulton County jail when incense in his truck wrongly tested positive for meth.

"It just blew my mind," he remembered when Atlanta police arrested him. "There was just no possible way it could have been anything to do with me."

Simon Cofie couldn't make his swearing-in ceremony to become an American, and his wife Clarice lost her job, when folic acid the Atlanta couple had in their car tested positive for ecstasy.

"It was like, I'm a criminal," protested Clarice about their treatment by the Doraville police department.

Every Georgia law enforcement officer gets trained in areas like firearms, CPR or working a traffic accident. But there's no requirement they be able to master two skills every preschooler has to learn: know your colors. And follow directions.

The disposable tests cost a couple of bucks each. The officer is supposed to drop a sample into the pouch, then crack three capsules one at a time to release a series of chemicals. If the final color of the solution matches the color on the pouch, the test is positive for illegal drugs.

Our investigation found examples where the colors of the sample didn't match a positive reading, but police officers decided they did and still made an arrest. In other cases, the officer didn't pay attention to the directions on the box, leading to more false positives.

Prosecutors eventually drops the charges once the state crime lab finds there were no controlled substances.

The Rockdale County Sheriff's Department said it no longer makes drug arrests solely on a field test. Doraville and Atlanta police have announced no changes to their policy.
"Messing up a lot of people's lives," complained Mallory, accusing police departments of rushing to make arrests. "Causing chaos. Havoc and destruction when it could be... the thing is just prove it what it is."

The company behind the most popular field tests -- Sirchie International -- has a warning on each box that the test results "must be confirmed by an approved analytical laboratory." But clearly some departments are arresting first and waiting for those results to arrive months later.

Now, some departments are choosing a different style of field test with products like MobileDetect, which uses a phone app to take a picture of the test colors. A red bar appears on the phone to indicate a positive reading and explains which drug was detected.

Police rely on the app, not their eyes. The kits cost a dollar more than the traditional field tests. The Cherokee Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad is making the switch now, removing the human element from the process of field drug testing.

"And that's the whole issue," agreed unit commander Phil Price. "You don't have to determine on the side of the road in adverse light conditions what the color is."

Because humans make mistakes. The kind that can cost other humans plenty.

"We want the whole nation to know what is going on in this country," stressed Cofie. "We believe that more people have been arrested innocently."