Lawrenceville police had already handcuffed this man and put him in a car to be jailed on felony drug charges when a supervisor heard their plea: what had field tested positive for amphetamines was actually sweetener.
LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. - It's just after midnight and a small canister inside a beat-up Jeep Cherokee has Lawrenceville police extra curious. They question the couple just pulled over for driving with no registration.
"Oh, it's mine. It's actually, uh sweetener in it," you hear the driver say on recorded police bodycam video.
"Sweetener?" the officer asks. "Like Splenda?"
"Interesting," responds the officer. Yes. Interesting. That's because their drug field test already determined the mystery white substance was amphetamines. Someone's headed to jail tonight on felony drug charges.
"I swear to God there's nothing in it!" the driver's wife complains as he's being handcuffed. "It is sweetener. We don't even do drugs! We don't do anything."
The two-dollar disposable kits are popular among police officers because they provide a quick way to analyze suspected drugs found at a traffic stop or inside someone's home.
But a FOX 5 I-Team investigation discovered law enforcement across the state making felony drug arrests based largely on the results of these tests, commonly called NIK tests, even though the box itself screams in capital letters: ALL TEST RESULTS MUST BE CONFIRMED BY AN APPROVED ANALYTICAL LABORATORY!
In just one year, the state crime lab reversed 145 positive field tests. That meant innocent Georgians spent days, even weeks behind bars before they could make bond, sometimes losing jobs or homes.
Now, in the wake of our investigation, law enforcement agencies across Georgia are taking steps to limit such a miscarriage of justice.
Some already had concerns. When we analyzed those 145 false positive cases, we discovered 13 examples where police decided to hold off making a drug arrest until they received crime lab confirmation.
Three delivery drivers convinced Duluth police what tested positive for cocaine was actually air freshener. They were right. No one was arrested.
DeKalb County police decided to wait before charging on a cocaine case. The suspects said what tested positive was "Goody's Headache medicine." They were right.
Gwinnett County School police did not arrest a student -- despite a positive meth result -- because they worried "the result was a false positive." Another right call.
The Rockdale County Sheriff's Office stopped relying on field tests after we profiled an innocent driver they wrongly jailed. A month later, Georgia Tech police stopped using NIK tests altogether because of the controversy.
In light of our investigation, the head of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police is urging his 1200 members to not rush drug arrests.
"I would use more caution," executive director Frank Rotundo told us. "I think there should be more evidence provided than that test kit and I think that we could do better than that."
Remember that Lawrenceville couple having a very bad night?
"I was upset because I knew there wasn't anything there," said Samantha Mallard, the other person in the Jeep Cherokee. "There was nothing. It was just sweetener." Yet her husband was already handcuffed in a squad car waiting to head to jail.
On the Lawrenceville police bodycam video, you can hear Samantha questioning the officer about the field test.
"So can stuff actually test positive..."
"You mean positive in a NIK kit but not positive?" the officer responds.
"Not that I've heard of."
But someone had heard about the controversy surrounding these tests. That would be the supervisor on the scene, Sgt. Jimmy Inlow. While Lee Cowart sat in the back of one patrol car staring at a felony drug charge, Sgt. Inlow drove his car to a nearby convenience store, walked inside and grabbed a packet of sweetener.
"I was either going to prove them right or wrong and I proved them right," Sgt. Inlow told us.
Yep... turns out they were right, too.
"I was just kind of shocked," Inlow admitted. When he poured the Splenda into the test kit, it gave a positive reading for amphetamines.
Lee Cowart would not spend weeks in jail unable to post bond. They let him go. Lawrenceville police decided to wait for the crime lab to determine whether someone here committed a felony. For cases like this, that's their policy now.
"I would not make the charge for someone and have that based solely on the NIK test," said police chief Tim Wallis.
"We would have been screwed big-time," Cowart stressed.
Instead, he lucked out, getting stopped just as word started to spread about the harm of these field test failures.
"You're sending people, innocent people to jail for no reason," complained Mallard. "And it's costing their homes, their jobs, their cars, their life. For a false positive."
When the FOX 5 I-Team first explored the dangers of trusting these field drug test kits, we profiled Simon Cofie and his wife Clarice Daku. The Ghanaian immigrants spent two weeks in the DeKalb County jail until they could make bond on drug trafficking charges. A false positive field test convinced Doraville police they had caught two ecstasy dealers. The baggie actually contained folic acid tablets Clarice was taking to help get pregnant.
While in jail, Simon missed his swearing-in ceremony to become an American. Even though the charges were ultimately dropped, Simon had a hard time convincing the US Citizenship and Immigration Office to set a new date. So we sent them our story. A few days later, we got to witness Simon finally become a US citizen.
"Was there any point in there where you said I don't want to be an American anymore?" I asked.
"No... I have a very positive thoughts," he insisted. "I didn't want that to be a hindrance for all the positive things I have. And what I want to do for the country."
Meanwhile, his wife continues to have a difficult time finding employment because the drug trafficking arrest still shows up in background checks.