The War on Drugs is designed to send as many people to prison as long as possible in order to enrich the pockets of the prison industry and its investors. No wonder then that a $2 drug test with serious false positive flaws sends thousands of people to prison every month in America.
AMY ALBRITTON can’t remember if her boyfriend signaled when he changed lanes late that August afternoon in 2010. But suddenly the lights on the Houston Police patrol car were flashing behind them, and Anthony Wilson was navigating Albritton’s white Chrysler Concorde to a stop in a strip-mall parking lot. It was an especially unwelcome hassle. Wilson was in Houston to see about an oil-rig job; Albritton, volunteering her car, had come along for what she imagined would be a vacation of sorts. She managed an apartment complex back in Monroe, La., and the younger of her two sons — Landon, 16, who had been disabled from birth by cerebral palsy — was with his father for the week. After five hours of driving through the monotony of flat woodland, the couple had checked into a motel, carted their luggage to the room and returned to the car, too hungry to rest but too drained to seek out anything more than fast food. Now two officers stepped out of their patrol car and approached.
Albritton, 43, had dressed up for the trip — black blouse, turquoise necklace, small silver hoop earrings glinting through her shoulder-length blond hair. Wilson, 28, was more casually dressed, in a white T-shirt and jeans, and wore a strained expression that worried Albritton. One officer asked him for his license and registration. Wilson said he didn’t have a license. The car’s registration showed that it belonged to Albritton.
The officer asked Wilson to step out of the car. Wilson complied. The officer leaned in over the driver’s seat, looked around, then called to his partner; in the report Officer Duc Nguyen later filed, he wrote that he saw a needle in the car’s ceiling lining. Albritton didn’t know what he was talking about. Before she could protest, Officer David Helms had come around to her window and was asking for consent to search the car. If Albritton refused, Helms said, he would call for a drug-sniffing dog. Albritton agreed to the full search and waited nervously outside the car.
Helms spotted a white crumb on the floor. In the report, Nguyen wrote that the officers believed the crumb was crack cocaine. They handcuffed Wilson and Albritton and stood them in front of the patrol car, its lights still flashing. They were on display for rush-hour traffic, criminal suspects sweating through their clothes in the 93-degree heat.
As Nguyen and Helms continued the search, tensions grew. Albritton, shouting over the sound of traffic, tried to explain that they had the wrong idea — at least about her. She had been dating Wilson for only a month; she implored him to admit that if there were drugs, they were his alone. Wilson just shook his head, Albritton now recalls. Fear surging, she shouted that there weren’t any drugs in her car even as she insisted that she didn’t know that Wilson had brought drugs. The search turned up only one other item of interest — a box of BC Powder, an over-the-counter pain reliever. Albritton never saw the needle. The crumb from the floor was all that mattered now.
At the police academy four years earlier, Helms was taught that to make a drug arrest on the street, an officer needed to conduct an elementary chemical test, right then and there. It’s what cops routinely do across the country every day while making thousands upon thousands of drug arrests. Helms popped the trunk of his patrol car, pulled out a small plastic pouch that contained a vial of pink liquid and returned to Albritton. He opened the lid on the vial and dropped a tiny piece of the crumb into the liquid. If the liquid remained pink, that would rule out the presence of cocaine. If it turned blue, then Albritton, as the owner of the car, could become a felony defendant.
Helms waved the vial in front of her face and said, “You’re busted.”
The test was wrong, of course. But Albritton was railroaded within days into pleading guilty and serving a 45-day sentence in a Texas county jail on felony posession of crack cocaine. She lost her job, her apartment, and her livelihood. Nobody back home knew she was in jail.
The field tests seem simple, but a lot can go wrong. Some tests, including the one the Houston police officers used to analyze the crumb on the floor of Albritton’s car, use a single tube of a chemical called cobalt thiocyanate, which turns blue when it is exposed to cocaine. But cobalt thiocyanate also turns blue when it is exposed to more than 80 other compounds, including methadone, certain acne medications and several common household cleaners. Other tests use three tubes, which the officer can break in a specific order to rule out everything but the drug in question — but if the officer breaks the tubes in the wrong order, that, too, can invalidate the results. The environment can also present problems. Cold weather slows the color development; heat speeds it up, or sometimes prevents a color reaction from taking place at all. Poor lighting on the street — flashing police lights, sun glare, street lamps — often prevents officers from making the fine distinctions that could make the difference between an arrest and a release.
There are no established error rates for the field tests, in part because their accuracy varies so widely depending on who is using them and how. In Las Vegas, authorities re-examined a sampling of cocaine field tests conducted between 2010 and 2013 and found that 33 percent of them were false positives. Data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement lab system show that 21 percent of evidence that the police listed as methamphetamine after identifying it was not methamphetamine, and half of those false positives were not any kind of illegal drug at all. In one notable Florida episode, Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies produced 15 false positives for methamphetamine in the first seven months of 2014. When we examined the department’s records, they showed that officers, faced with somewhat ambiguous directions on the pouches, had simply misunderstood which colors indicated a positive result.
ProPublica found hundreds of wrongful convictions and plea deals just in Harris County Texas and Houston alone. Across the country, the number is easily in the tens of thousands, and yet these folks have to live their lives as convicted felons for years and sometimes decades.
Amy Albritton's conviction was overturned. Many, many more will never be that lucky.