Hundreds of police and corrections departments in Ohio and around the country use portable test kits to determine whether suspicious substances are illegal drugs. These kits are popular because they are inexpensive, and police and corrections officers can be trained to use them in just a few minutes. They consist of several plastic pouches that contain chemicals. When illegal drugs like heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine are placed in the plastic pouches, the chemicals change color. The problem is that dozens of legal substances trigger the same chemical reaction.
The unreliability of portable drug test kits has led to several court challenges. In 2018, criminal defense attorneys in California asked a judge to rule on the reliability of drug test kits. The attorneys represented inmates who were punished after the kits identified substances found on incoming mail as illegal drugs. More reliable tests conducted at a state laboratory found no trace of drugs. After reviewing the evidence, the judge ruled that the kits did not meet the minimum threshold for scientific evidence. When a judge in Massachusetts presided over a similar case in 2021, he said the results provided by drug test kits were little more than “arbitrary and unlawful guesswork.”
Drug test kits are unreliable because they do not always work and can provide misleading results when they do. The reaction that causes their chemicals to change color occurs more slowly in cold weather and sometimes does not occur at all in hot conditions. The reaction can also be triggered by more than 60 legal substances including household detergents, chocolate and sugar. More reliable tests can be run to prevent false positives from leading to miscarriages of justice, but that only happens when criminal cases go to trial. According to figures from the National Registry of Exonerations, more than 130 people have been wrongfully convicted on drug charges in just the last 10 years because they entered into plea agreements after test kits identified benign substances as illegal drugs.
Prosecutors want stronger evidence
A police officer may arrest an individual because a drug test kit identifies a suspicious substance as an illegal drug, but the prosecutor involved will demand more reliable evidence if the case goes to trial. You should bear this in mind if you are ever charged with a crime due to the results of a roadside drug test, and you should wait until a more reliable test is run before you consider a plea agreement.