ATLANTA (FOX 5 Atlanta) - A FOX 5 I-Team investigation prompts calls for change in police departments not just here but around the world.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police is the latest organization to react to revelations that a popular field drug test kit is putting innocent people behind bars. The IACP has members in 152 countries.
"They certainly will be aware that this is an issue that needs to be addressed," said Lou Dekmar, the LaGrange police chief and past president of IACP.
Our analysis of Georgia police records discovered in just one year, 145 people were wrongly charged with felonies after a field test falsely claimed they had drugs. Instead of ecstasy, cocaine or methamphetamines, people jailed actually had common items like incense, headache powder or cleaning supplies.
Or even cotton candy.
"He said ya'll want to tell me why this is coming back testing positive for methamphetamines?" remembered Dasha Fincher when Monroe County deputies tested a bag of cotton candy found in her car. "And I said, I don't know. I think you need to test it again."
Instead, the Macon grandmother would spend three months in jail unable to make a $1 million cash bond until the state crime lab results came back: no controlled substances.
"Our criminal justice system is based on the notion that it's better that 10 guilty go free than one innocent person be convicted," chief Dekmar pointed out. "And in this case we had at least 145 folks that were charged with a violation of the controlled substances act that shouldn't have been."
He's sent our findings to a pair of IACP committees to come up with new policy that could ultimately influence how their 32,000 law enforcement officers around the world value these disposable kits. Dekmar says that review will also gauge how many false positives international police agencies have seen.
The largest test kit manufacturer -- Sirchie -- boasts on its website they're the biggest in providing quality products to "the global law enforcement and forensic science communities."
Every Sirchie box warns to get the results confirmed by a real lab. But too many times we spotted police taking the field test results as gospel.
"Nobody wants to see someone who's innocent of a crime go to jail and spend days in jail for something they didn't do," agreed Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Georgia Prosecuting Attorneys Council. Before taking this job, Skandalakis spent 33 years prosecuting drug offenders. He's glad police departments are wising up in light of our investigation.
"I think it's a good story. I think it is going to make a difference. It's going to cause law enforcement agencies... to look at their policies and to get this right."
Get it right... because we found something else disturbing in our research. Of those 145 false positive cases, three chose to plead guilty before the crime lab test results came back. We were unable to find any of the three. Two are homeless. One has moved out of state. All three got first offender or conditional discharge status, meaning the conviction disappears from their record if they stay out of trouble.
Justin Mallory can relate. The Atlanta x-ray technician endured an entire month in the Fulton County jail without bond after a test kit wrongly said he was meth dealer. He really had a bag of incense.
Justin frantically wrote jail staff to explain the mistake, but no one listened. Stuck in jail, he would lose his car and be evicted from his apartment. Even his turtles and fish died. Eventually, Justin says his public defender came to him with a way to at least get moved from Fulton County.
"The offer on the table was 25 to do 20 years," he remembered. "Do 20 years for incense."
He said no. Eventually the crime lab exonerated him and the charges were dismissed. But Justin admits now he might have taken a deal to be released on time served.
"You were so miserable in the Fulton County jail that you were willing to confess to a crime that you knew you didn't commit?" I asked.
"Absolutely. I was seeing... it was very dangerous."
That's exactly what worries the National Association of Public Defenders.
"The client may be telling the lawyer, look I didn't do this," explained executive director Ernie Lewis. "But then the prosecutor's telling the lawyer, your guy can get out today."
That's why Lewis is sharing our findings with all 18,000 members, in hopes of better arguing motions for reduced bond or to dismiss charges altogether.
"I sent this out to everybody," Lewis acknowledged. "I think it would have the same impact nationwide that it's had apparently among law enforcement in Georgia. No arrests unless there's confirmation by a lab."
A rare moment where the public defender... the prosecutor... and the police chief all agree.