Police rely on field test kits to identify drugs

Centre County police departments use field drug test kids to identify suspect substances.
Centre County police departments use field drug test kids to identify suspect substances. Centre Daily Times, file

To police officers, white powder could be cocaine — or a number of other substances. Anything green and leafy is an automatic signal for marijuana.

But in both simple and questionable cases, chances are good that somebody will soon face a drug possession charge once an officer uses a drug test right on the spot.

Local police departments say the field tests, which are easy to use and require only several hours of training, have never led to skewed results.

“I’m not aware that it’s given a test of positive and didn’t test positive later in the lab,” said Sgt. Ryan Hendrick, of the Ferguson Township Police Department. “At least, that’s been my experience for the past 18 years.”

Questions about the reliability of field drug tests arose after The New York Times published an investigation in July that found that inexpensive field drugs tests had ruined the lives of thousands of people through false positives that led to convictions.

Field drug kits are part of standard procedures in initial investigations — they quickly change color to indicate the presence of a controlled substance.

When marijuana is put in, for example, the clear liquid in a test pouch will turn light violet on top and dark purple on the bottom once three ampules are broken and agitated.

The Times’ investigation reported that kits intended to test for cocaine turn the same shade of blue when reacting with 80 other compounds.

An estimated 100,000 people nationwide plead guilty every year based on field test results alone, according to the Times.

Locally, Penn State police Sgt. Monica Himes emphasized that presumptive drug kits are not the “be all and end all.”

“They’re literally just there to help guide the officer into what they believe the substance is,” Himes said.

Before defendants go to trial, the identity of all drug samples will be verified by the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Forensic Services at the Harrisburg Regional Laboratory.

State College criminal law attorney Matt McClenahen said that is because the kits aren’t accurate enough “to prove somebody guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

“It’s basically similar to the use of a portable breath test that they use when they’re investigating an underage drinking or a DUI,” McClenahen said. “That’s not admissible in court.”

Yet marijuana and other drugs can be “fast tracked” before a preliminary hearing, said Penn State police Lt. Stephanie Brooks.

With possession of small amounts of marijuana, she said, the process allows police to make charges based on positive results from field drug kits.

“It’s a way for people to say, ‘Yes, I accept responsibility. Let’s move on,’ ” Brooks said.

In Pennsylvania, the ability to accept evidence from a presumptive drug test comes from what is called the Frye standard.

“The courts have said that the test and the officer’s testimony, training and experience is enough to bind those charges over for trial,” said Adam Salyards, community relations officer for the State College Police Department.

Still, a defendant charged with possession of marijuana can choose to move forward in the court system. Only then will police send the sample to the state lab for certified testing.

Besides incurring a $400 processing fee, a defendant might end up waiting six months to receive a report from a “bogged down” lab, McClenahen said.

McClenahen said in his experience, the accuracy of drug test kits may fall short in urban areas where “scammers and schemers” often possess non-controlled substances.

But Salyards said that even if drugs are synthetic or laced with other substances, he’s never seen the various versions of the kits produce false positives.

State College criminal law attorney Jason Dunkle said he believes the tests are “generally accurate,” though he has seen how wrong results can “ruin someone’s life.”

Dunkle said he represented a Penn State athlete who was “almost removed” from the team and the university after he was caught with synthetic marijuana — a substance that was legal at the time of the incident. The field test for his client’s pipe produced a false positive.

Dunkle said he filed an expungement petition after the case was dismissed but that “does not change history.”

“The problem is that the stakes are too high to use a test that is not as accurate as forensic testing,” he said.

Alison Kuznitz is a Penn State journalism student.