How a $2 Roadside Drug Test Sends Innocent People to Jail

Jul 10, 2016 · 160 comments
Gail (Florida)
Did anyone of the people posting and recommending comments about the use of these tests at trial, read and understand that these results not actually being used at trial?
EW (NY)
Innocent until proven guilty is belied by the similarity of jails and prisons.

The fairness of fines and bail amounts is belied by varying abilities to pay.
mabraun (NYC)
While this may be how Texas conducts it's business, the writers should be very careful to point out that every state and lots of different localities do drug addrests differently. I have newver seen a NYC police officedr or patrol person conduct a chemical anlyasis on the street and, had I been the victim of such a hustle I would have pointed out that such a set of circumstances leave popen a possibility of police using drugs or desirous of a particlur quota of arrests to fake a falso positive. This is why such arrests and testing are usually ,(in most sane states) by different people from the arresting officers. This is an open invitation toi corruption and blackmail. Imagine how much it might be worth to some people to have such evidence or false positives "disappear". It is probably a small industry down there.
Phil (Florida)
Another example of the government out of control. Innocent folks sent to jail or basically a victimless crime (if it was a crime). Much needs review...........
Michael in Upstate (New York)
An excellent and truly horrifying article. It is incisive reporting like this that leads me to continue to subscribe to the New York Times. Thank you for bringing to light this profound miscarriage of justice. So much money is wasted and so many lives are needlessly damaged by our obsession with trivial quantities of (possible) drugs. It isn't only painful. It's actually sickening to know what happened to this woman. An apology, someone? Anyone?
Joe Scapelli (Pa.)
Not surprised this happened in Texas, although it could have been any state.
A sad story and indictment of the cop-no justice-prison industrial complex. Police over-reaching & prosecutorial misconduct and a convict at all costs mentality leads to ruined lives and a lack of respect for the rule of law. Moreover, the Supremes have ruled that prosecutors are basically immune from damage claims for failing to turn over exculpatory evidence. See
Connick v. Thompson, (2011), a 5-4 decision.
Karen M (Pasadena, CA)
The Albritton case is just like Sandra Bland! Both pulled over because of not signaling a lane change. And in their home states, signaling for lane changes is at the discretion of the driver.
I'm wondering if maybe insurance companies or AAA could publish some guidelines for drivers as to what their rights are if pulled over, and maybe some guidelines/a protocol that would make things safer for everybody. Just like if you were going to be driving in Mexico where some areas are fine and other areas are problematic with police.
Of course, if you are driving in an area where there is an officer who is untrained or just out to get you for any reason, it probably doesn't matter.
After reading this, I don't think I ever want to go to Texas unless I have to.
Peter R (Toronto)
I've never understood the obsession that appears to exist amongst (some) Police officers, and their relentless search for drugs on citizens. The majority of it seems incredibly unnecessary. "You didn't signal during that lane change, now we're going to search your car for narcotics".....?

If you're using a roadside test that's been found to be wrong 1 in every 3 times, that test should be banned. It's a violation of one's right that your life could be ruined by a simple roll of the dice or human error.
rungus (Annandale, VA)
For many years, I worked with a U.S. Department of Transportation drug testing program for safety-sensitive transportation workers (truck drivers, airline pilots, etc.). Beginning in the late 1980s, after a marijuana-using train engineer caused a fatal crash with an Amtrak train in 1987, this program carefully balanced the safety imperative of preventing people in these positions from endangering people by using illegal drugs with the protection of employees from being unfairly stigmatized as drug users, and potentially using their jobs.

To achieve this balance, the program requires both initial tests of a urine specimen and confirmatory tests to be done in a Federally-certified laboratory, the second test using the GCMS method mentioned in the article. A physician must determine if there is a legitimate medical explanation (e.g., a prescription medication) for a positive result. That people are deprived of their freedom based on a testing process that does not come close to including analogous protections for the integrity of the process and the accuracy of the results is appalling.
neal (westmont)
There is a lot of blame to go around here (too many parties to mention) but also people going above and beyond their job.

1) The Austin reporter who initially "found" the story and actually cared enough to flesh it out into good shoe-leather reporting. Congrats - keep it up. 2) The lab manager who kept a standard of excellence high enough that, even if it took years, hundreds of people were exonerated. It pains to me to it went for naught for so many years because of an unmonitored email address. Thank you for your work ethic. 3) The prosecutor who heard a problem, listened, followed up, and did more than just sent a notice to an attorney. To hear that half of all exonerations nationwide are from this county is a staggering statistic.

Great reporting by the NYT too. PLEASE followup. This is why I subscribe.
Pamela Hilton (Delray Beach, Florida)
Please make this reading mandatory for every police academy cadet. And fix this from multiple points in the judicial system from the US Attorney and DOJ investigating the wholesale injustice to reconciliation/restoration/restitution of the victims. The story of Jean Val Jean is alive and well, my citizens.
D. (CT)
Perhaps one solution would be to hold those officials who, and their jurisdictions which, being responsible for miscarriages of justice, should subsequently be held civilly and criminally liable for their violations of constitutional procedures. Those who are innocent should receive substantial financial restitution for the damage and destruction of their lives and livelihoods.
George (NYC)
Why not continue filling the jails? Where's the downside?

Private jails owned by GOP-oriented companies, cops that vote Republican as a bloc, civil forfeiture that goes to the station for new toys, an extra arrest for the cops pursuing, the elected prosecutor gets a mark in his book, the elected judge gets to make an example, and all under the veil of the public good.

Drug users are democrats, democrats are against the cops and for Black Lives Matter, and as we all hear, trumpeted from all available media, and in much greater force than any possible counterargument - Black Lives Matter is racist, and now, it turns out, are all cop killers.

The media is owned almost entirely by the Right. How else do these schemes get traction? How do we end up with half the country parroting BLM are terrorists?
Meg (Toronto)
I'm still gobsmacked that someone could be arrested because of a speck and a crumb. Even if the speck had legitimately been a narcotic, that seems like an awfully flimsy basis to upend someone's life. And with no benefit to the community at large. I would want police to go after the big dealers. Not someone with a speck.
Ron Diego (San Francisco)
Wow! This is likely pervasive throughout the country, and countless lives shattered. Harris Count attorneys (and NYT reporters for shining a light on this) are to be commended. I hope it becomes a priority of the Justice Department to test all the backlogs, exonerate the innocent, and require protocol changes so no one is convicted without lab tests.
Ben Myers (Harvard, MA)
Can you spell r-a-i-l-r-o-a-d-e-d? The American criminal justice system is geared toward plea bargains for those who cannot afford or who do not get competent legal counsel. And then we wonder why this country has more persons per capita than any other country in the free world? Way more!
Old Guy (Here Now)
This story is only one fractional aspect of the 43 year long absurd, hideous, criminally destructive "War on Drugs" that still trudges on, continuously destroying peoples lives. Another example of how what otherwise was a simple traffic violation was transformed into a nightmare that is preceded by a million other similar cases. The consequences here were relatively mild compared to most.

This destruction has pointedly been most baleful against the African American community, to ignore this fact is to omit a large component of the current crisis of this communities thoroughly justified perception of Law enforcement.

Prohibition of alcohol in the United States only lasted 13 destructive years (1920- 1933), before the citizens and Government of the United States had the collective sense and wisdom to recognize what an unmitigated disaster it had become. It created violent criminal organizations to feed the black market that the temperance movement naively thought would just vanish, as well as making criminals of otherwise law abiding citizens for what Abraham Lincoln had earlier referred to as .."a man's Appetite"..., when he decried previously proposed temperance laws.

Yet this criminal absurdity continues after 43 yrs., with minor modification, as though what has utterly, completely failed will somehow suddenly work.

Einstein's famous quote that "applying the same failed remedy to solve a problem is insanity", is beyond relevant here.
John Brown (Idaho)
How can it be Constitutional that before there is even a trial you are locked away in the City/County Jail for who knows how long while you lose your job, your place of residence, car, belongings while a corrupt ( Lack of ) Justice system treats you as guilty for a non-violent felony ?

What are Public Defenders doing if they just tell the person to plead guilty and thus ruin their once innocent lives ?

Perhaps all people seeking to be Judges should have to:
Ride along with the police for a month, work in the City Jail for a month,
be a Public Defender for a year so they know what we goes on when a person is arrested.
DLP (Brooklyn, New York)
My heart breaks for this woman. I hope she sues and gets a nice hunk of money to care for her son. What fortitude she has. I admire her greatly. I hope this article and the exoneration lead to a good job; she clearly deserves it.
MarieJ (Tampa, FL)
My heart breaks for all those wrongly convicted. Good thing so many of our prisons are managed as for-profit institutions. Wow, that is sure working out well. NOT.
Dr. J (CT)
Why are these drivers even being stopped in the first place? To hassle the drivers? To search for drugs -- and then "find" them, with deeply flawed "testing?" Putting so many US citizens in jail is incredibly expensive -- so who benefits here? I know for sure that the taxpayers lose, lose, lose. The "war on drugs" was initiated to keep "undesirables" -- the poor, minorities, even hippies and protesters in the 60s -- in their place, and it continues for the same reason. Shameful, and a huge waste of public resources for no gain at all, just loss and devastation all around. But hey, lives, families, and communities are destroyed -- and that's the purpose of war, right?
Ambabelle (Paris)
Bonjour de Paris; Am I wrong in believing that 0.013 g of something is not a tiny pinch of salt but one grain of salt. That you cannot measure it to the third decimal with any reliability (was it wet or dry?). That any measurement must be quoted with its range of confidentiality, in this case more or less zero. That a sample of that size kept in an envelope is meaningless? That if you do not have anything to control with you have nothing? That the measurement of such quantities depends on the calibration of the instrument, which is very seldom done because it take to much time and sows too much doubts. I would have failed any of my students and called him/her to my Office and tried to find out why he/she could err so much, was my teaching so bad? Sorry to bother you but we have been fighting in any University against bad measurements for so long and yet it goes on and on. Au revoir et excuses
Jimi (Cincinnati)
Sadly any well versed person knows it. Good money buys good legal council that is capable of diluting & adding question of guilt and diminishing an inevitable penalty. Pick the the high profile O. J. who has an All Star team to dazzle with illusion to the unbelievable not guilty findings when a cop shoots a poor young black man already pinned under force of 2 cops. The wealthy white doctor who gets in trouble but with money never goes to court in our town or the poor guy busted for a hand full of drugs & is sentenced before he can blink - in this supposedly more tolerant landscape. Money & power influence every level of justice in town & country. Please let me have money.
Dorothy (Cambridge MA)
People are blaming the cop and the defense attorney, who did nothing but follow departmental procedures. The cop stopped a car for failing to signal. He asked the young man inside to produce a drivers license. The young man told him he didn't have a drivers license. Now it's morphed into something larger than the turn signal which gives the cop a reason to look inside the car and sees a syringe and something he assesses as white powder. He does what he's told to do, and that is get this testing kit. The test comes out positive, he bags the evidence, arrests the couple, and his job is done. It's not his job to judge. Its not his job to take excuses. He meets hundreds of people with excuses.

We weren't there. We don't know what happened. I'm not going to second guess the officer or the defense attorney and I'm certainly not going to believe this woman's account as she is certainly not a poster child for having good judgement.

The issue is how much of our taxpayer dollars are going to waste by continuing to use these kits and how can we stop it. When will our representatives stop throwing good money after bad? How much of our money is going toward a court system that is overloaded and apparently understaffed?
Sandy (Brooklyn NY)
Dorothy:

"the defense attorney, who did nothing but follow departmental procedures"

Do you know an attorney's job is to "zealously defend his client within the confines of the law"? He didn't give her the option to wait for the results of the drug test. He didn't contact her employer per her request - the article states he took upon himself not to.

"the defense attorney, who did nothing... " would be more accurate.
Getreal (Colorado)
Not only that, but prohibitionists are throwing away $35,000/year to keep each of their victims in a cage. People who were not hurting anyone. It is not uncommon for prohibitionists to ruin the lives of their victims. Keeping them in cages for 10 or more years, $350,000 "each"" while they also ruin your Child's chances for higher education. Wasting this money on the failed War on Drugs, (War on People)
suzinne (bronx)
No empathy from you, huh? And she showed bad judgment - her only bad judgement was her boyfriend. This woman was arrested and had a felony conviction for no good reason. But your only takeaway is about your tax dollars?
Jason Kaye (NYC)
Our policing system is out of control. I was recently arrested for something that was entirely my fault, rookie move. Cops showed up at the house, I recognized them, greeted them warmly and owned up on the spot.

They laid seven charges on me. Told me if I wanted to hire a lawyer and fight the charges my immigration status would be at risk and my property would be destroyed. The only option would be to plead guilty to lesser charges - in the end, fines coming to nearly $2000 as well as other penalties.

If this were to happen again I would fight it in a heartbeat. Don't trust the cops, especially if they tell you not to hire a lawyer.
bauskern (new england)
I worked for many years as a prosecutor, and now practice criminal defense work. If the readers of this article think that this case is an aberration, they live in a dream world. This story gets repeated multiple times, every day, in courts throughout the nation. Luckily, most of the defense attorneys I know are hard working, diligent, and professional. That includes the court-appointed attorneys who represent the indigent.
Sandy (Brooklyn NY)
Everybody from top to bottom should have to go through what the knowingly wrongly convicted did - the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and the arresting officer(s). Officers should NOT be using these field tests and they know it but want to make a "good" stop so they manufacture evidence to fit their bias. The attorneys are about their numbers, justice be damned. And the judge (lowercase as not to besmirch the good works of Judges that actually carry justice) should be removed. He should take 2 extra minutes thereby not arbitrarily ruining someone's life.

The whole system is broken and those that know that still operate within the system but won't change it, fix it or slow it down.

So much for being innocent until being guilty. Here's to being proven innocent but still being treated like you're guilty, time served. It would be comical if it weren't real.
Charlie (NJ)
Where is the outrage from our legislators over this kind of horror inflicted on innocent people? The municipalities that are proven to be at fault for this kind of callous disregard for justice should face appropriate financial liability for the damage to these people's lives.
Ken L (Houston)
Stories like this, and the issues with Police related killings, and the fact that police rarely go to jail for killing someone, is part and parcel why many young people and racial minorities, especially African Americans, don't trust the Criminal Justice System.
JTFJ2 (Virginia)
A tremendous article. The more of these kinds of things I see -- such as assert seizure for profit by police -- tells me that the war on drugs has horribly perverted our law enforcement agencies. The effects of policing for profit and of a prison industry (industry!!) are simply unbelievable. I really am beginning to think that prosecution of uses is plain stupid, and even criminal in itself.
mobocracy (minneapolis)
Law enforcement is, like so many other facets of life, increasingly governed by quantifiable data, which becomes a substitute for qualitative truth.

Police officers are evaluated by the quantifiable results they produce -- traffic stops, citations issued, arrests made. Their incentive structure has become oriented towards these pieces of data, so they respond in kind by engaging in actions which can produce this data. This structure permeates the police department, self-motivating both the officer on patrol and his superiors who are also judged by the aggregate data of their subordinates.

Prosecutors likewise are judged by their own quantifiable data -- convictions, which in turn, is guided by incentives to gain more convictions. These are not only related to internal advancement but become part of a public political message they and other politicians use to demonstrate their crime fighting credentials.

Unfortunately in law enforcement the data selection is biased towards enforcement concepts -- arrests, prosecutions, convictions -- so the system becomes increasingly enforcement oriented. Other than the occasional PR of pinning a medal on an officer who saved a drowning child, we don't generate data on non-enforcement law enforcement service -- helping a lost person, for example. Good cops do these things anyway, any many feel angry at the public for not recognizing them, but there's little data, so we disregard them.

We've become prisoners of data.
Andrew Porter (Brooklyn Heights)
This reinforces my lifetime determination to never have a license, never drive a car.
Peter D (CT)
Meanwhile in Portugal no one goes to jail for drug offences and reform is the goal. Lower prison populations mean lower costs as do fewer court appearances. This allows police and the justice system to focus on real crime and fight terrorism. Somehow things seem backwards here in the land of the "free"
Ben Harding (Boulder, co)
A very good argument for ending the war on drugs. Make possession and use legal. No more field kits needed. No more mistakes. No more bias.
Dennis Cauchon (Granville Ohio)
Why is it the burden of wrongly convicted individuals to remove the convictions from their record? The story says the Texas appeals court must vacate the conviction -- and that's just the start of cleaning a record denies innocent people housing, employment and more. The story notes most innocent people both plead guilty (to get out of jail) and don't do anything to fix the record when told of their exonerated.

These are cases in which the state has discovered and admitted convictions were erroneous. Notification of error may satisfy legal requirements. It does not satisfy the state's moral duty or common sense. The state owns the burden of correcting its errors and ensuring that criminal records are accurate.

That said, the Harris County officials in this story are admirable in many ways for their honesty and forthrightness.
Kyle (Thomson)
A very good article ....
Tired of Hypocrisy (USA)
Does anyone actually believe that the person who had possession of the "substance" being tested doesn't believe that the "substance" is the real thing? Really?
Melinda (Just off Main Street)
The Houston Police is full of 'Barney Fife' types...I'm not saying all officers are bad but, trust me, their reputation for being self-important authoritarian types with little education is well documented.

That's all I will say. I know a few innocent people who were dragged into court by them.
Wessexmom (Houston)
That's not even remotely true!
Left coast kind of man (NY)
I'm pretty sure I missed the part where Amy and Wilson were driving through a third world country.
rono (nowhere)
We have the rights we can defend. We live in a police state. More non-defend Federal officers are armed than we have US Marines. What does that say. ... This week the nation has peeked behind the veil of law enforcement. Whimsical (capricious) enforcement ranges from traffic stops to lying to Congress, money fund theft (Jon Corzine), failure to pay taxes. Lawless enforcement leads to lawless behavior. Google "you are probably a federal criminal".
Simon Dixon (Santa Barbara)
"162 of the 212 N.C.S. defendants had criminal histories involving illegal drugs" - I wonder how many of those previous convictions may have been obtained the same way? Once you are flagged by the system, it follows you around. Including the rap-sheet that pops up when you are detained. Talk about fruit from the poison tree. Add civil-asset forfeiture on top of this and it's no surprise that a large swath of the population are very angry with what amounts to a state-sponsored RICO operation. The police may be (even unwittingly) the sharp point of the spear, but this policy and willful ignorance goes all the way to the top of the justice department. Would be interesting to find out how much political muscle and money has kept these broken tests in place.
George (NYC)
Yeah, who chose that company, who donated money from that company, and do they have any ties to the for-profit prison business.

A society should heal its own, educate its own, defend its own, and jail its own. Private companies have no business in any of these areas.
Charlotte Coffelt (Houston, TX)
This seventy-seven year old long-time resident of Houston/Harris County would like to offer to contribute to a fund for attorney fees for Amy Albritton. For shame!!!
Wessexmom (Houston)
At least Houston is recognizing and working to fix the problem. Other cities, states and federal law enforcement agencies are just NOW recognizing that there is a problem. And that includes the FBI.
Texas now leads the way on criminal justice and forensic evidence reforms. That's a fact, according to the Innocence Project and also well documented in The New Yorker, TX Monthly Magazine (where the editor of the NYT Magazine Jake Silverstein was editor in chief until 2014) etc.
James Watt (Atlanta, Ga)
State and County governments need punitive damages just as we do with corporations. If Texas had to pay $1,000,000 to every misdiagnosed drug conviction they would test everything immediately and this wouldn't happen.

But also important we have created a legal nightmare regarding drugs and prison. America is a failed society in many areas including our criminal justice system.

Unfortunately I doubt America will ever come to grips with intelligence. Just look who are the presumptive nominees for Preisdent of the USA.
T.L.A (Connecticut)
Due process should require gas chromatography-mass spectrometry analysis as a condition precedent to felony drug conviction whether by trial or plea. This article is the best evidence that justice should require that.
PointerToVoid (Zeros & Ones)
"The greatest country on earth."

hmph.
C Parker (Portland, Oregon)
I just wanted to comment in response to the comments passing blame. This is not an indictment of any one group (e.g. Police, prosecutors, judges), I see this as an indictment of a process (field drug testing) that has been shown to be severely flawed. And when this flawed process fails lives are severely damaged. I don't think it's in our best interest as a society to start pointing fingers, we just need to fix the processes that are failing us.
Sandy (Brooklyn NY)
Yeah but who is instrumental in the miscarriage of justice? Even if the officer is not at fault, surely the prosecutor and especially the judge are able to see these erroneous charges for they are. The test isn't at fault, rather the people who propel a process they know is faulty.
RF (Washington DC)
Fantastic reporting, but there is inadequate discussion of the people and organizations working to make policy changes regarding the use of these tests. Apart from decision makers in local jurisdictions or groups working to exonerate falsely convicted persons, who is working on prevention? Who is lobbying against the continued use of these tests or for modifications in the ways they are administered? Particularly this week, our country is collectively looking for ways to make specific changes to systematic bias in the legal system and this article illuminates one important area that should be addressed. Please give enough information so we can follow up with specific advocacy groups, write our representatives with a coordinated ask, get involved or donate.
Jonathan Edelfelt (Santa Fe, New Mexico)
The root of this problem and many of the traffic stops that end tragically is the war on drugs. This war is being used as a pretext to oppress poor and minority populations all over the U.S. Police stopping people for a busted tail light are always hoping to find something else. And suspected drug use is a easy and often subjective reason to make an arrest. We need to put an end to this war, decriminalize drug use and possession and treat drug use as a mental health issue.
Ted Mader (Hungary)
Thank you NYT everyone knows there is not a drug problem in the US. The smear job on police continues - you should be proud of your daily coverage of racist and the police.
Left coast kind of man (NY)
This is an important work of journalism - well researched and educational. Thank you New York Times (subscriber here). About all I could come up with is "wow".
Harley Leiber (Portland,Oregon)
All drug tests, prior to their use as evidence in a criminal proceeding, need to be subjected to a GCMS confirmation test. Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry is the "gold standard" for drug testing. It is used for confirmation precisely for that reason and it is a more expensive test than a reagent based test. The sample needs to be simultaneously sent for confirmation once a "postive" result is found on the field test.
A (NY)
More carnage in the War on Drugs. Time to end all incarceration for drug users. This way cops will no longer use drugs as a pretense to search/arrest because they won't have the power to do so. Time to stop all of the madness and treat drugs as a mental health issue.
Anabelle Rothschild (Santa Monica, CA)
Incarceration is BIG business in America. Any tool that can fill the prisons while billing the taxpayers and turning monumental profits will be in used regardless of how flawed it is. Don't forget - police are the law and prosecutors, lawyers, and judges create and oversee it. It is pretty much a rigged game against the populace. False Positive is a great metaphor for the justice system itself these days.
Ichigo (Linden, NJ)
Just legalize drugs and be done with it already.
Joseph (Louisiana)
There was once a time I would believe anything a police officer said but that is no longer the case. Some are to eager too arrest people.
SAO (Maine)
It's simple mathematics that the frequency of true positives depends on the population being tested. If a test, which is accurate 99% of the time, is used on a population where 1 in a thousand is a true positive, then in a thousand people tested, there will be one true positive and 10 false positives (1%*1000). With the paradoxical result that over 90% of the positives are false, even though the test is 99% accurate.

This is why, even with tests of high accuracy and used correctly, tests should only be used to confirm a suspicion based on other good evidence.
stone (Brooklyn)
That is not what 99 percent accuracy means.
It means that 10 out of a thousand will be inaccurate.
You are assuming the ten inaccurate results are all false positives.
Is it possible a inaccurate result can also be when there are ten false negatives results.
If so than your logic is wrong.
If there are 100 positives out of a thousand ten results can be inaccurate meaning at least 90 were true positives.
Getreal (Colorado)
Prohibitionists cause endless suffering and police state conditions.
Del Ehresman (Toledo)
Let's be sympathetic to most police officers. They are underpaid, undertrained, and deal primarily with a sordid segment of our nation's people -- ordinary Americans who they presume are criminals.

Also, thanks to the NRA and its fans, police routinely are dealing with someone who might have a gun. I suspect the war rule of "shoot or be shot" is always on the mind of every cop.

In this context, a question for all Americans: Would you want to work and life the life of a police officer?

A related question: If there are only a few bad cops, why aren't the good ones speaking up?
Wessexmom (Houston)
No one forces police officers to pursue careers in law enforcement.

Yes, they have VERY difficult jobs, and we should ALL support efforts to better support them, but that does NOT excuse the Us-Against-Them mindset that has taken hold in many police unions, especially NYPD's!
Tired of Hypocrisy (USA)
Del Ehresman - "If there are only a few bad cops, why aren't the good ones speaking up?"

You obviously haven't been listening, or what you are hearing doesn't fit your agenda!
Peter D (CT)
Why aren't we training our police to be professionals? Military service is hardly a prerequisite or sufficient experience or knowledge, yet our streets are crawling with these types of officers. Where is the police college curriculum including psychology and other social science training? This is the investment we need in the USA, not doing so for the Iraqi or Afghani national police forces. Let's try some spending at home and getting our own house in order.
Del Ehresman (Toledo)
Dan Richardson is an example of how corrupt our nation's criminal justice system is -- a court-appointed lawyer getting paid (perhaps $200) to commit professional negligence, misfeasance, malpractice. He's just one of many bit players in this chaos.

The more over-arching problem is that America's politicians refuse to provide adequate funding for most governmental functions (e.g., the IRS, prisons, national parks, highways, schools, police and fire services, on and on).

America's politicians are unwilling to enact taxes that would provide needed funds. Politicians don’t want to impose taxes on the people who can afford to pay them -- corporations, billionaires, millionaires.

I like the idea of a "financial transactions tax" to raise money from a huge segment of our economy that is largely untaxed these days -- Wall Street and its minions. They have the money. Time for them to ante up and support the nation that's making them wealthy.
Peter D (CT)
Let's stop funding training of foreign police forces until we can truly boast of a world class, elite trained US police force. Until then we should cease acting like the world police, especially given our domestic record.
fromsc (Southern California)
Quite a gauntlet poor folks have to drive through here in the U.S. If civil asset forfeiture doesn't get them, these absurdly flawed field tests will. It's a three-headed monster wielding these sticks of course--the arresting officer, the prosecuting attorney, and the judge. Nowhere in the process does common sense or the slightest sense of humanity prevail. It makes me think that something else must be at work, a well-coordinated and monetized war on the poor perhaps. Of course when the victims are both poor and black, there is even less chance that justice will be served. I wonder how many of those wrongly convicted were made to pay court costs and/or sent to for profit prisons.
Re4M.ORG (New York)
We concur, the failure of our Criminal Justice System ("CJS") can not be solely attributed to law enforcement. The CJS has been tainted by inefficiencies, distributing inaccuracies, flawed prosecutorial system, unfair laws, and illogical outcomes. We as a nation must stand up and question every case because demonstrably the facts have demonstrated the inaccuracies of our CJS.
The injustice portrayed on one of our fellow citizens and the impact upon their family should enrage all of us. The officers, prosecutors, and others involved in injustice should reimburse society and the injured.
Peter D (CT)
Sounds almost "cruel and unusual".
Steve (Los Angeles)
Even if you are guilty... what about your impounded car, charges on it are more than the car is worth, lost apartment, lost job? That is what all these demonstrations are about. There was a time when the "state" promoted terrorism against their own citizens. Remnants of that system still remain.
PAN (NC)
A justice system that behaves so cavalierly (including the use of deadly force) towards the citizens it is supposed to serve and protect is not Justice.

A plea bargain is nothing more than an enticement (coercion) of a Guilty plea out of a potentially innocent person - who is supposedly presumed to be innocent in the first place - is an immoral scam that also allows the truly guilty to get off lightly. It allows the justice system to evade doing the tough work that needs to be done and their solemn duty of providing justice to all citizens.

Perhaps law enforcement should, in addition to reading the Miranda rights, read them the fact that the drug test they are basing their arrest on is only 2/3 accurate, and this fact can be used in a court of law for reasonable doubt and that they also have a right to GC-MS test freely available for their defense.

Never submit yourself to a drug test that is not 100% accurate.

With the GOP starving critical government services of funds to do their jobs correctly this problem is to be expected. The GOP obviously benefit from all the innocent felons out there that are denied their right to vote!
Peter D (CT)
But the GOPs John McCain is happy to authorize billions to train police in Afghanistan and Iraq but not at home.
Eric (Sacramento)
Clearly the motto "Serve and Protect" is not what happend in this case. It is wrong charge a felony for any crumb, unless it proves murder or rape. The police and the justice department are working against society as opposed to correcting problems in cases like these. Neither person was suspected of being a dealer. A simple drug test would tell if they are recent users. Drug users need treatment not felony convictions. Unnecessarily ruining lives hurts us all. Putting drug users in jail solves nothing.
SW (Henderson, NV)
I think this is what happens when people who barely managed to graduate high school become cops. A lot of them are not all good at thinking, at reasoning, at analyzing things. They're given a test kit, but most of them probably don't go to the trouble (or know how) to find out how accurate it is. So they're arresting people left and right (with a racial bias) and not worrying much about how likely it is that they're putting someone in jail for weeks (or years) based on nonsense. Poor, poor judgement.
Wessexmom (Houston)
Even if they were chemistry majors in college, I don't think these field tests should be part of a patrol officer's duties. It's too much of a distraction. What if they get the tests mixed up, forget to turn them in and or leave them in the car too long, etc? The possibilities for error are endless.
global hoosier (goshen, IN)
thanks NY Times for this article and showing another tragic flaw in our justice system.
Wessexmom (Houston)
At least this one is being corrected. There are so many more still hiding under the rug.
Peter D (CT)
I can almost hear Rep. Peter T King now "we have the greatest justice system in the world".
alan auerbach (waterloo ontario)
Thank you, New York Times.
melsays (NYC)
So, "Why are police departments and prosecutors across the country still using them?" Why indeed? Maybe that's a follow-up article. Have the Houston police, for example, stopped relying on field tests? Have the Houston courts stopped accepting possession pleas where the evidence solely relies on field tests? If not, why not? Sure sounds like a class-action suit waiting to be filed? And can the drug testing companies really hide behind label disclaimers? Kudos to the reporters for making it personal by focusing on Ms. Albritton's case. It shows that those likely to be crushed by this system are poor or have little support or both. Proof again that we have the best criminal justice system money can buy.
Gerald Forbes (Puerto Rico)
REMEMBER, THERE IS A CONSTITUTION! Never incriminate yourself; keep your mouth shut. Stone Wall efforts to get you to admit to anything. Once the police understand you know your rights, they back off.
Garak (Tampa, FL)
Why a juror would give any credibility to any cop or prosecutor using these tests is beyond me.
Sandy (Brooklyn NY)
The juror is not to blame as most of these cases never go to trial. They are plead down so the "victim" can take the fastest option to get back to their lives. The people who maintain their innocence still sit in jail and have their lives turned upside down...
Haitch76 (Watertown)
Cops follow the "broken windows" maxim. Tailights not working, selling cigarettes on the street, failing to signal, etc. can get you hauled in. The more arrests the better , it means you're doing your job- besides, if fines are incurred , more money to the munipality. Cops are incentivized to issue Tickets and make arrests. The people bearing the brunt of this misguided policy are Black folks. The "broken windows" philosophy is a way of keeping racial minorities down.
Peter D (CT)
The people most burdened are the taxpayers who fund the operation of prisons, many of which are for profit corporations. Something's really wrong when you look at this from the perspective of a public company profiting from more arrests and convictions.
anonymous (new york)
Firstly the "test" used sounds like a very poor and random pH or colorimetry test which, as the author aptly stated, would change the desired color for many chemical reactions.
Secondly I would caution the author to, not confuse in vitro diagnostics (IVD) tests, such as pregnancy tests and HIV tests, which are heavily regulated and scrutinized by FDA for obvious reasons, with this kindergarten chemical reaction. A large amount of false negatives, in these cases can cause, as they have here, a great deal of trauma and would NEVER be allowed in the US or other regulated markets.
IVDs require much validated analytical and clinical data to be reviewed and approved by FDA before they are distributed for patient use.
I suspect that this "test" from 1973 was never validated to current GMP/GCP standards nor reviewed by FDA or any other regulatory or scientific body.

Let us also be mindful that, with the privatization of prisons, there is a need to fill them in order to make them profitable. Just like with privatization of all community resources; schools, hopitals, ambulance services, etc.; profit will be the motivating force.
there is no incentive to improve on this "test" if it helps to fill the quota and if there is no legal or regulatory requirement to be met prior to its use by law enforcement.
scary..
Sandy (Brooklyn NY)
I agree with everything you said, however, if I refused this test as is my right, I might get manhandled or shot and my paperwork would read "resisting arrest." My character would then be pothumously assassinated and my memory sullied. What good is it to know that a test is inaccuarate and whose results should be inadmissable, if refusing said test could get you shot?! That, is the choice someone has to make and that, is unacceptable.
David G (Los Angeles)
This is not the United States of America I thought that I lived in. It's a horror movie.
bb (berkeley)
Another travesty perpetrated by the police. While it was Nixon who declared 'the war on drugs' it was Regan who instituted drug testing that was then adopted by many large corporations under the auspice of 'safety' Random drug testing is still utilized by many companies. I believe this to be a violation of right to privacy. People must use drugs (alcohol being a drug) in a responsible manner and if not performing correctly at work or in their car should then face the consequences.
Alan Burnham (Newport, ME)
More insanity from our "War on Drugs". Justice is NOT served!
rbjd (California)
More proof of the lingering trauma caused by the insanity of the "War on (some) Drugs".

Imagine you are a defense attorney. Your very poor client is in custody facing potentially YEARS in prison for allegations of simple possession of a controlled substance. Your client stands to lose everything if not released immediately: housing, work, children.

"If you can't post your (ridiculously excessive) felony bond, you'll have to stay in custody until trial, which could be another month or two down the road even if you don't waive your right to a speedy trial," you say to your confused client. "Of course, if you just plead today, you'll get out right away."

How many times have smart, well-qualified attorneys had this conversation with poverty stricken clients in jail? Beyond count. And 999 times out of a thousand, the client takes the deal.

A truly smart attorney makes the plea contingent on getting proper lab analysis done after the plea, so it can be undone if the lab tests are negative.

This is the system we have built in America. Thankfully, California has had the good sense to change former simple possession felonies to misdemeanors.
But the problem still exists.

Addiction is a disease. Bail schedules are too high and negatively impact the poor. People's lives are ruined more by drug laws than by drugs. Until we decriminalize poverty and treat people with compassion and dignity, little will change.
TM Brown (Vancouver)
Astonishing and sad... Ms Albritton and those like her, caught up into terrible circumstances are tragic. The war on drugs and the system that blindly continues to wave that flag are to blame and must be held accountable for the suffering and losses caused. THAT's justice.
C.C. Kegel,Ph.D. (Planet Earth)
Reefer madness. Society and the police are the ones who are mad.
End the War on Drugs and prosecute real crimes against victims.
The police and defense attorneys should have to pay, individually, for these convictions.
Gag order settlements should be illegal.
curtis dickinson (Worcester)
What a nightmare for Amy. I hope she finds peace of mind.
I have an answer for the question "Where does a person who has a substance-abuse problem get the money to buy drugs?” McClelland argues" Locking them up does not solve the problem. How about handing out free drugs in a controlled manner? Surely it is the least expensive solution on every level from drug use, to court use. Look at al the problems caused by marijuana arrests in the last 50 years! It is unimaginable the number of people with permanent misdemeanor and felony records for using marijuana--lives permanently altered for using marijuana. . And now in the year 2016 is becoming accepted as a life-enhancing medicine. I don't know wether to laugh or cry.
Jon (NM)
"Widespread evidence shows that these tests routinely produce false positives. Why are police departments and prosecutors across the country still using them?"

That seem easy.

Because the corrupt system of judges, prosecutors, police and politicians, who regularly approve the extrajudicial executions of unarmed detainees who are restrained are in cahoots with the corrupt corporations who sell the defective product.
Ronald Weinstein (New York)
The big lesson here is that plea deals are a joke of judicial instrument. Get rid of them. Someone is either guilty or innocent and the onus should be on the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that someone is guilty. Bullying innocent people to agree to a plea deals should be a crime against humanity.
Tommy Hobbes (<br/>)
The injustice done to Amy was and remains as it is horrifying. You wonder why people are distrustful of legal authorities. My dad, a member of the Bar for over forty years, used to say that the amount of justice one gets is commensurate with money to pay for that justice. Innocent poor folk don't have much of a chance. The horror is that Amy is caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare and is still being punished for her innocence. Multiply her fate by thousands of people. It can't get much worse than that. "... With liberty and justice for all."
Miriam (Long Island)
And people wonder why the criminal justice system is distrusted!
~X~ (NYC)
If it can happen to her, it could happen to you. Or anyone. Terrifying to think that a stranger can suspect you of something and give you a $2 chemical test that can be wrong --and if so can also ruin your life.

Unless you are rich enough to mount a confident and robust defense.

Could this create a higher number of convictions for drug-related offenses among the poor?

There must be a good number of innocent souls that have been crushed by this system.
flpeteg (Overthere)
Key phrase by ~X~ in above post: "Unless you are rich enough" which apples to every aspect of our lives.
Clifton Hawkins (Berkeley, California)
If even a tiny bit of controlled substance generates a positive, what prevents vicious and racist police officers from carrying around small amounts and dropping a tiny bit in the drug test vial? Police regularly plant much larger amounts of controlled substances on suspects, and at times a firearm as well.
I myself have had nothing but pleasant relations with law enforcement, but I must say that the monstrous abuses inflicted on poor [and disproportionately minority] people absolutely stagger me.
That outrageous injustices are systematic and widely known to and covered up by police, district attorneys, public defenders and judges is beyond doubt. I would never, ever, vote to convict a suspect no matter what evidence the authorities claimed to have. I say this with real sorrow [and shame].
Dottie (Texas)
At Rice University in 1961, we were told that the Houston Police Department was not to be trusted. I've never heard or read anything to the contrary in the past 55 years.
jgury (chicago)
The larger issue is of course the war on drugs.
Yet another reason to end one of the most stupid, longest, and destructive wars the US has ever engaged in.
Golddigger (Sydney, Australia)
Mr Nixon's war on drugs continues to spread it wretched stench to every corner of the world denying people of life liberty and happiness. Truly disgusting.
Bob Smith (NYC)
Hard to tell who the real criminals are in Texas. The lone star state appears to be how many times they get it right. Drug war? The innocent are loosing. The, "Your busted" cop needs more then new training. He needs a better understanding of how his job itself is contributing to the enabling side of the addiction issues.
Cathy (MA)
I'm sure this - or something similar - is happening in NY and most everywhere else.
PH Pieron (France)
according to whether you are rich or poor, what a difference it does!!!!!
I do love the US, I did post graduate studies in Stanford U, my brother lives in California.
When I see how deeply flawed the police and judiciary system is, I am wondering how the community of the US people will go forward.
vulcanalex (Tennessee)
This is a bad situation. But I would not go with a person that I only knew a short time. I would not allow a person without a drivers license to drive my car. I would not be going with anybody to get them a job unless say married to them. Now the judge should have better protected her and I blame lax ethics for that.
Sandy (Brooklyn NY)
@Vulcanalex:

The shame of it is, even people who were licensed drivers, going to secure work (Sandra Bland comes to mind) were arrested or killed. 'Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
RE (Boston)
Thank you for bringing this story to light. This is truly important journalism.
Adisa (UAE)
More and more the United States seems like a third world country. While Senators berate China and India for their human right abuses and problems with their justice systems - they fail to address the very real abuses at home and to hold people accountable. It is time lawmakers took a good hard look at their own justice system and the manner in which laws are implemented to ensure that the most vulnerable populations are not victims of abuse or even worse side-effects of a badly designed system. Cases such as these are a stark reminder how much work there needs to be done, and how we all live in glass houses.
Annie (United States, USA)
Excellent research and excellent reporting. THIS is why I've subscribed to The NY Times for years. Also, ProPublica, thank you for your tireless, diligent work. Our justice system is better because of your many efforts. You've saved lives and livelihoods.
Laughingdragon (SF BAY)
It's an outrageous system fueled by the greed of lazy attorneys colluding with corrupt district attorneys and point seeking patrolmen to railroad the poor, ignorant of less intelligent into jail in a system that rewards all paid participants for continuing their immoral behavior. The fact that they do not act to vacate the convictions show that the attorneys and officers are beyond redemption. I can see that police vs civilian violence is going to increase markedly in the United States in the next two decades.
Laughingdragon (SF BAY)
Innocents, sue the companies providing the fraudulent tests. These tests do not meet any federal or state standards. And sue whatever authority paid for the tests because you were not informed of the statistics regarding test failure rates before the trial. That was a known fact which you should have been given to use in your defense. As for the attorneys, they should be disbarred for fundemental incompetence.
ando arike (Brooklyn, NY)
How much more evidence will it take to prove to Americans that the so-called "war on drugs" is, in actuality, a predatory war on the poor and working class -- especially poor and working class people of color who are easily targeted and swept into the system to have their lives permanently crippled? This "war" has turned our "justice system" into a system of mass subjugation, condemning millions to second-class citizenship, and turning police agencies into occupying armies, prisons into concentration camps. The soothing TV image of fair and impartial American legal institutions is completely belied by the fact that more than ninety percent of criminal cases are never tried before a jury. Yes, more than 90%! Instead, as the article shows, prosecutors use the threat of long jail terms to coerce confessions and guilty pleas from innocent people who cannot afford an effective legal defense. Michelle Alexander describes this system as "The New Jim Crow," in her book of that title, but it is also a version of the "class warfare" that Karl Marx describes. Either way it has nothing to do with justice, and everything to do with maintaining elite privileges and profits by keeping the poor and working class permanently fearful, disenfranchised, disorganized, depressed.
Paul Adams (Stony Brook)
The entire "justice" system (both criminal and civil), from beat officers up to the Supreme Court via for-profit prisons etc etc, is one of the largest industries in the US, and it's almost completely unregulated. Like all industries it's built to benefit the industry not the public, but unlike the others it's unregulated and often immune (by law!) to assessment, criticism or investigation. Worse, as this article shows it's often the cause of the poverty that can lead to crime, in a self-perpetuating circle.
Steve Singer (Chicago)
Always look on the brighter side of life: at least they weren't shot to death during that traffic stop.
Kevin (North Texas)
If you are black and live in the US of A than you truly do live in a police state.
Dirt (NY)
" we saw a clear story about both who is being arrested and what is happening to them. The racial disparity is stark. Blacks made up 59 percent of those wrongfully convicted in a city where they are 24 percent of the population"-----
This type of abuse of statistics may be what leads the authors to feel they are seeing a clear story, but could they please be more careful not to mislead us? 59% of wrongful convictions should be compared to rightful convictions, not to an overall population statistic. If they want the stats to have any meaning other than a misleading one, that is.
Sandy (Brooklyn NY)
@Dirt-

You're misunderstanding the statistic. How could 24% of a population have 59% of anything overall? Profiling is real. Also, the wrongful convictions cannot be compared to rightful convictions because, as it states in the article, more wrongful convictions are being found every day because the "evidence" is still being tested.
Mac (chicago, IL)
This is a particular example of the broader problem of the general practice improper plea deals: deals which are so attractive relative to the alternative that a rational innocent person would accept.

There is a reasonable and just basis for a guilty suspect is offered a somewhat shorter sentence in return for a guilty plea as it conserves resources for other cases. So, reasonably, suspect who would run the risk of a ten years sentence if the case went to trial might be offered a deal for a guilty plea with a sentence of 5 years. No innocent person when accept such a deal and the punishment for the gulity is significant and the public is protected by getting the guilty off the streets for a substantial period of time.

But, what has become almost universal is the "slap on the wrist" versus serious prison time alternative presented to suspects by prosecutors who haven't even made any investigation into the suspects guilt of innocence.

Common as it is, it certainly is unjust because the innocent, even when advised by an attorney, may well conclude that it is better to plead guilty than spend what might be years in jail waiting a trial which itself will have uncertain outcome. The uncertainty in outcome has to be great because the accused has to worry about the possibility that police officers will lie under oath and be believed.

It is also unjust because the guilty get off without the punishment the law provides for and are soon back on the streets endangering the public.
Tom (Earth)
At least the cops didn't shoot them.
Paul Muller-Reed (Mass.)
Police will continue to use them when their budgets are funded by governments whose prisons are controlled by corporations who demand enough prisoners to be profitable.
Tournachonadar (Illiana)
Income disparity plays a huge, indeed an inescapable role in these wrongful convictions. What Texans would inwardly think of as "poor white trash" as well as whatever derogatory terms may apply to black and Latino people would be running in a white person's head in that quasi-independent republic. Having lived as a person of privilege in that state, I also put up bail money for a friend's son who was similarly wrongfully accused. Without my financial intervention, which was repaid, he would have languished in the dungeons of Harris County on the most flimsy pretexts, as a person of no means does in Texas, regardless of racial or ethnic factors, which may play a considerable role as they did last year in Hempstead, Texas...
Wessexmom (Houston)
If you had actually read this whole article you would know there is nothing about the use of these field drug tests that is unique to Houston or Texas, except for the FACT that officials there are now making attempts to correct the problem!

As we speak, there are hundreds of young men now languishing in Riker's Island that have never been charged with any crime! Much less given a chance for bail! Educate yourself!
David R (Kent, CT)
Around twenty years ago, I pulled over in the night after driving in the rain for 2 hours because my 1-yr-old daughter was exhausted from crying ; I just got out of the car, took her out of her seat and walked around a bit. As I turned around, a police officer was stepping out of his patrol car; he asked me why I pulled over, and I told him. He smiled, walked over and flirted my daughter. In that moment, I saw a man with parents, maybe a wife and kids, and felt relaxed with another person whose path had briefly crossed with ours.

Our country has changed. I'm afraid every time I see a police officer. By now, it should be all too obvious that this test is used by police and prosecutors not despite the fact that it produces false positives but because of that fact. It is their dream-come-true: a tool to put as many people in jail as possible because that is what police and prosecutors see as their mission. I don't for a minute buy that they seek justice--if they did, they would use a lot more of their judgment and discretion on average people before ruining so many lives.

Every time I read a story like this, I become afraid that my daughter could get pulled over for virtually nothing and thrown in jail. I have instructed her to check the function of her brake lights every single time she gets in her car, just like looking at the tires and putting on her seatbelt, because it is a matter of life and death.
A Reader (NJ)
There is an awful lot of money to be made from prosecuting and putting people in jail, all for a two dollar investment.
UH (NJ)
The is what we get when our penal system is for-profit! To make money we need to sell more testing kits, so we need to stop more people, arrest more people, and convict more people.
We have created the same endless cycle of useless tests and middle-men squeezing money out of our health care system.
Both systems serve the providers instead of its consumers.
Chuck (Yacolt, WA)
This is just another example of the fact that it's devastating to be poor in the United States. If you can't afford a private attorney you get railroaded through a process which makes it even less likely that you will ever escape the curse of poverty. As the rich get richer and the poor poorer we descend into a nation more like pre-revolutionary France or the old Soviet Union.

We are brainwashed from childhood to believe "with liberty and justice for all", but many of us are awakening to the realization that just as with our political system the legal system functions properly only for those with enough money to "pay to play".
Mike (Urbana, IL)
Next question...Does any of this mistaken mania to test and incarcerate supposed low-level drug offenders provide any effective change in the scope of the drug issue?

Apparently, in the face of repeatedly doing this and failing, while continually expecting different results, what we have is an institutional insanity that focuses on producing numbers - convictions - that are portrayed as progress in the "drug war." In fact, present policy simply acts as a price support mechanism for drug cartels even as it starkly demonstrates year after year the utter failure of prohibition.

Disturbingly, it is also a gross perversion of justice by a justice system that is reliant on the veracity of its claims against citizens before the courts. In fact, such crimes of _criminally_ negligent behavior should indict prohibition as far more destructive of the republic than drug use could ever be.

War often makes the combatants adopt the tactics they condemn in their opponent. In this war, we have chosen to tolerate the rot of our constitutional order - a more egregious failure of the oath of public office is difficult to imagine.

Where drug use is a problem, it is largely a medical problem. The police aren't chemists. They're also not doctors. It's time that American come to its senses, as befuddled as they are by the hubris that drives this unjust scheme to imprison our citizens by baking in injustice in a careless, failed, and counterproductive scheme to ensure job security for police.
Gail (Florida)
As a longtime prosecutor I am often perplexed by what happens in other places. In my jurisdiction, we didn't even bring formal charges with out a lab report. I have never plead or tried a drug case without a lab report confirming there actually was a controlled substance. Judges here have always asked for the lab results before accepting a plea. I have never had a false positive and have only heard of a few over the course of my career, but I wouldn't feel comfortable not having that confirmation. We always have to remember that convicting someone of a crime is serious business. No prosecution will be perfect but there has to be some minimum level of assurance that we got it right.
Del Ehresman (Toledo)
As David R said in his comment, this cheap test is a dream-come-true:

"a tool to put as many people in jail as possible because that is what police and prosecutors see as their mission. I don't for a minute buy that they seek justice -- if they did, they would use a lot more of their judgment and discretion on average people before ruining so many lives."
Shawn Bayer (Manhattan)
Government cannot handle the simplest of tasks, administrating an accurate drug test.

The results of this are a disaster for those falsely convicted.

Nobody cares. Certainly not the arresting offices, the DAs and the judges etc.

Ultimately politicians are responsive for these deeply flawed police procedures.

More collateral damage in American's crazed War on Drugs whose goal seems to be to make every citizen a felon.
Sisters (Somewhere)
I sometimes check where the story took place because it's hard for me to believe it happened here in the US and A! Killing its people softly . it's a different kind of war against your own people . Hope all those poor wrongfully convicted out there would find justice , the right justice . Also people should spend a little more time to learn about their rights , they are not given but they are available out there , it's up to you to find them and educate yourself.
David (Portland)
"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".

Not stated here is the obvious implication that the officers were either framing the victims of these tests or they were criminally stupid, or both. And meanwhile the entirety of the Republican party is frothing at the prospect that Hillary Clinton acted above the law, as if a large percentage of people (including themselves) in any position of power aren't acting above the law and endangering people and ruing lives every day with complete impunity. The United Staes of Hypocrisy.
Chris Mobley (Santa Barbara, CA)
Kudos to the NY Times for this kind of critical reporting. This reporting will hopefully lead to changes in our justice systems across the country. Poor people get hosed every day, and it's just plain wrong. Another more obvious problem is the fact that a woman would get a felony conviction for possession of a few crumbs. That should be a misdemeanor at most even if it did turn out to be a controlled substance. What a waste of gov't resources. Users should be diverted to drug treatment and their convictions, if any, should be fully expunged if they exhibit good behavior, etc. Better yet, no conviction at all.
John Lance (CA)
Appalling. There needs to be a complete overhaul of the justice system, which in fact is an injustice system, when it comes to drug cases. The "war on drugs" is as egregiously flawed as the war on Iraq. And his helped to fill our jails at the rate and volume of no other country in the world. Ah yes, the land of the free. /s
Anet (Oregon)
I work in a clinical lab and we use validated methods for assaying patient specimens. Yet we still don't consider them POSITIVE until a confirmatory mass spec analysis has been performed. Unfathomable that road side 'assay' performed in an uncontrolled environment would be adequate to support a charge.
nemo (Chicago)
Again a sad but excellent investigative report on the state of criminal justice in America. The more you look, the more ugliness, injustice and despair you find, not just as a feature of the larger society, but of the institution whose purpose to right the wrongs and establish and maintain justice itself. In many ways it contributes to the perpetual cycles of suffering and crime. It is very hard to see humanity in all of this. It is easy to understand a deranged mind, but it is hard to understand the collective ignorance, neglect and complete lack of empathy and common sense that is seeping through our social institutions today.
Steven Miner (Onancock, Va)
This is great journalism and an exemplar of why print news remains vital to the health of our society. Confirmation bias surely is correctly identified as the culprit at the heart of what is a possibly corrupt and clearly uncaring justice system, but cleansing sunshine, coupled with good people like Ms. Chandler and Ms. Harris with their "corny" notions of justice, can and will prevail when supported by a free press and editors with a conscience.

Thanks for making this part of your publication. It should be required reading in all law schools.
WSB (Manhattan)
No more plea bargins! Make the State prove the case.
trent (washington state)
Great read on a tragic issue. Thanks for the in-depth follow through.
KrevichNavel (Santa Fe, New Mexico)
Thank you for bringing this out in the open. If you find yourself in this same situation, then the response Ms. Albritton received from her son, will be all too familiar to you. "If it says Crack, you're guilty", nothing you can say will make anyone believe you. In a similar vein I've heard friends, tell me of their false positive test results, and I never believed them. Drug use is equated with dishonesty, right? And then, for no reason, I tested positive. My world didn't end, I have a long time lawyer and was able to get a retest rather quickly. But my world view regarding the infallibility of drug tests, my snap judgements of others and the extreme validity we put into test results, over other factors in evaluating one's honesty, was changed forever. Now, a 97% correct test result means, to me, 3 people out of a hundred, are falsely labeled as drug users, and millions of people are tested. It's time to rethink all of this, considering the consequences.
Doc Who (San Diego)
Ms. Albritton is an admirable American who contributes to our country and takes care of her disabled son in difficult circumstances.

We should all feel deeply ashamed for the way our country has treated her.

We owe her an apology at least. And restitution.
curtis dickinson (Worcester)
Give her enough money to take care of herself and son for the rest of their lives.
Wessexmom (Houston)
Yes, and she has a much better chance of receiving restitution in TX than she would in CA or NY!
TX leads the nation when it comes to crime lab test reforms and mandatory restitution payments by the state.
Left coast kind of man (NY)
Indeed. Agree with all three of your points
K Henderson (NYC)
An excellent article.

And all because a signal light wasnt used to change lanes.

Do the individual police who use these faulty drug tests on a single crumb know how faulty they are? Or do they simply look for the chemical to turn blue indicating positive and that is literally all they know when they drag someone in for the strip search and cavity inspection?

At what point do these cops working their beat realize that something is not adding up when the woman says she knows nothing and the boyfriend stands there saying nothing? Do they care what it means to actively place a felony drug conviction on a person? And all because a signal light wasnt used to change lanes?

It takes a particular kind of person to want to be that kind of cop.

Recent events tell me that traveling to Dallas is to be avoided.
Doc Who (San Diego)
At this point I'm not so sure there was a missed turn signal.
Wessexmom (Houston)
Really? You think traveling to DALLAS is to be avoided?
Tell that to Eric Garner's family, Abner Louima, the Central Park 5--young black men who spent YEARS in prison after being wrongly convicted of gang rape and then were denied financial restitution by Mayor Bloomberg for many more years!

OR the thousands of black men in NYC who were slammed up against cars and buildings under the ALLOWED practice of STOP AND FRISK! Or the thousands of others left to rot in Riker's Island jail cells without ever being charged!
Wessexmom (Houston)
Don't know about San Diego, but the LAPD has one of THE very worst histories in America for profiling and brutally abusing black citizens. That's a fact. (Watch ESPN's brilliant documentary--OJ: Made in America.)
Also, if you read this article, you will know that people in San Diego have also been arrested on the same false-positive field drug tests.
hen3ry (New York)
If Albritton had been able to afford an attorney, i.e. was rich, she wouldn't have accepted a plea deal, would have been exonerated, and her life wouldn't have been ruined. The fact is that our adversarial legal system coupled with electing prosecutors works against finding people innocent unless they can resist the push to enter a guilty plea, have enough money to pay a lawyer, and are willing to tolerate months of being treated like a criminal. The more convictions a prosecutor can point to the better his/her chances of being re-elected. In addition to that, our society makes sure that every felon or worse, every arrest is a reason to deny a person a job, aid, a scholarship, anything that might improve their lives so they don't return to crime or decide to take it up because they were arrested and it's the only way they can get by.

This is one area where people should be screaming about violations of our constitutional rights. We are supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Pushing everyone for a guilty plea and then finding them innocent years later is a perversion of justice, particularly when the penalty lasts for the rest of the person's life and is woven into every strand of the internet. But I guess that innocence is much less important than the right to carry a gun in order to be safe from Armageddon.
Paul (Chicago)
And why do we require police to ruin the lives of drug users anyway? The system sidesteps the medical condition and turns it into a legal one for what gain? I'd be curious to know how many imprisoned users learn their lesson and stop their addiction because they go to jail? More likely my guess is they leave prison with more skill at criminal activity than when they went in. Prison is not a form of social work and should not be used to cure medical issues. States that routinely imprison on false charges should be doubly condemned, and those who foster this injustice must be blinded by their ambition. Legalize and treat, the drug war is a war against the weak with collateral victims far too often.
anon (NYC)
This could have been a very good addition to the NYT article. Unfortunately the author of the comment veers towards the political.Too bad
rbjd (California)
The issue isn't whether she had an attorney. The issue is whether she can get out of jail before having to decide to take a plea. People take bad plea bargains in order to get out of jail. Even "rich" people will take bad plea bargains to avoid jail.

It is a sad fact of American justice that judges and prosecutors routinely squeeze bad deals out of people by offering to let them out of jail with time served if they plead out. The vast majority of people will do or say just about anything to get out of jail, even if it means pleading to a charge they didn't commit. It's a rigged game that even the best attorneys can't do much about.

A fair system would recognize that if the correct sentence for a charge is time served, then people should be released from custody and be allowed to have their day in court.

If everybody who was charged with a crime was released and insisted on a trial, the entire system would collapse under its own weight. Judges and prosecutors know this, so they lay a very heavy hand on people to plead pre-trial. The pressure to take a deal in this situation is enormous.
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