FORSYTH, Ga. (FOX 5 Atlanta) - Three months in jail with your life turned upside down, all because deputies mistook cotton candy for methamphetamines.
It's the latest outrageous example in a FOX 5 I-Team investigation that reveals how law enforcement places too much trust in field test kits designed to spot illegal drugs.
"They're taking a chance of somebody losing a house or a child or time with their family and all over a little two dollar test?" complained Dasha Fincher of Macon.
Fincher loves her family, her boyfriend and cotton candy, but her sweet tooth would turn sour two years ago along a quiet Monroe County road.
"I have not had one piece of cotton candy since I got out of jail," she admitted.
Deputies pulled over Dasha and her boyfriend on New Year's Eve, 2016, suspicious about the tint in a Toyota Corolla they had borrowed from a friend. The tint checked out fine. The couple even agreed to let deputies search the car.
The Monroe County Sheriff's Office dash cam video has no audio, but you can see corporal Kevin Williams ask about a clear bag of some blue material he found inside.
"(Deputy) Cody Maples reached over there and picked it up and smelled it," Fincher remembered. "My boyfriend looked over there and said what does it smell like to you? And (deputy Maples) said cotton candy."
On the video, you can see Dasha react in disbelief when Cpl. Williams told her a field test kit determined that blue substance was actually meth.
"He was like, is there something you want to tell me?" she said. "We can talk about this right now. And I was like, yeah, I want you to test that again!"
Instead, deputies handcuffed both and took them to jail, charging each with felony drug trafficking. There was no other evidence of drugs in the car.
Dasha would spend the next three months in the Monroe County jail, her bond set at an unreachable one million dollars cash. She would miss the birth of her twin grandsons and not be there to comfort her daughter when she suffered a miscarriage. The whole time she was telling anyone who would listen she never had meth. It was just cotton candy.
"I still get upset because I can never, ever have that time back," she pointed out through tears. "There's nothing they can do, no amount of money, none of it... to be able to put my arms around my daughter after she had her miscarriage."
In April, 2017, Dasha finally walked out of jail after the GBI Crime Lab test of that same blue material showed "no controlled substances." Charges dismissed. No apologies. No explanation.
Dasha Fincher's case is just one of 145 false positives the FOX 5 I-Team discovered during our analysis of field drug test kits. That's 145 across Georgia... in just one year. Other innocent people were also wrongly jailed -- sometimes for weeks -- because they couldn't post bond either. Some continue to have trouble getting work because they say that original felony drug charge still shows up during a background check.
"If you had 140 false positives in one year from the GBI, how many more false positives are they having across the country where this test is used?" asked Macon attorney James Freeman.
He filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Dasha Fincher, naming Monroe County, the two deputies and Sirchie International, the maker of the test kits, as defendants. Sirchie has a warning on every box that test kit results should always be confirmed by a real lab.
Included in Dasha Fincher's lawsuit as Exhibit D... a copy of our original investigation.
"I know your reporting has shown that what's on the box as far as the warning, don't just rely on this test," Freeman observed. "But police are relying on it."
Neither Sirchie nor Monroe County would respond to our questions. They have 21 days to answer the lawsuit. But suing governments is always a challenge. An x-ray technician sued Atlanta Police and Sirchie after a test kit wrongly suggested he was a meth dealer. He spent a month in the Fulton County jail, losing his home and his car. He insisted what tested positive was actually incense. The state crime lab ultimately exonerated him, but not before he lost his apartment and his car. His fish and turtles also died because no one was there to feed them.
But a federal judge ultimately dismissed the civil case.. agreeing the APD officers had qualified immunity because they were fulfilling their law enforcement duties at the time of the arrest.
"It was very disappointing," sighed Mallory. "It was... it was devastating. To get denied... it was just more of a travesty."
Freeman took the case on contingency, meaning he won't be paid unless they win.
"I don't know if I'll ever get a penny from it," he explained. "I don't know if she'll ever get a penny from it because battling the government is an uphill battle. She was wronged. And somebody needed to let her have an opportunity to tell her story."
Because Dasha Fincher says she knew what she really wanted ever since that day in jail when one of the deputies who arrested her walked by.
"I said hey, remember me? I'm the cotton candy girl. And he said, no. I remember you as the meth girl."
"What do you want him to know you as now?" I asked.
"The girl that I had to apologize to because I was wrong for the way I treated her."