When police officers in Georgia and around the country find a suspicious powder or other substance, they often test it using a portable kit. These kits are widely used because they are extremely inexpensive and performing tests is very straightforward, but the results they provide are unreliable and cannot be used as evidence in court. They are essentially bags of chemicals that change color after being exposed to controlled substances like methamphetamine, crack or powder cocaine. The reason the tests are unreliable is because benign substances like baking powder or sugar can also cause the chemicals to change color.
The questions surrounding portable drug-testing kits may seem unimportant because judges have consistently insisted on more comprehensive testing performed by forensic scientists using sophisticated equipment in crime laboratories. However, the firm stance taken by the judiciary rarely plays a role in cases involving drugs as many of these cases are settled at the negotiating table long before juries are sworn in and trials commence.
The issue that has angered advocacy groups is the way police officers and prosecutors use the results of dubious field tests to convince suspects who have done nothing wrong to confess to crimes that they did not commit. Prosecutors in Texas, Oregon and Nevada have bowed to this pressure and overturned hundreds of narcotics convictions based on the results of drug tests performed in the field.
Many of these wrongly convicted individuals spent months behind bars for drug possession because they did not know that the evidence against them could not be used in court. This is why it may be wise for any person facing criminal charges to speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney before accepting a plea offer even if the terms seem attractive. When presented with questionable field test results, attorneys might demand that criminal charges be dropped unless prosecutors or police officers can produce more substantial evidence.