Field Tests on Illegal Drugs Wrong Up to a Third of the Time

By Lisa M. Schaffer, Esq. on January 31, 2019 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Imagine facing 25 years in jail, accused of possessing heroin with intent to sell, and yet having no idea that you even had a scrap of drugs on you. One would think that's a possibility on a vacation in Mexico, but not driving around in your new-to-you used van in Florida.

That's the reality Matthew Crull recently faced, spending Christmas and New Year's in jail, with his family wondering if his not guilty plea was legit or not. All seemed loss, until his 41st day in jail, when he learned that the arresting officer had been making arrests based on erroneously positive field-use tests. Crull has been released, and the arresting sheriff may face criminal charges for false arrest.

Suspect Imprisoned for 92 Grams of Tide Laundry Detergent

Crull, like potentially 80 other victims, had been approached by Martin County Sheriff's deputy Steven O'Leary for appearing suspicious. After all, he was a long-haired young man snoozing in an old model Chevy Astro van at night with an open Budweiser can in the cup holder.

O'Leary did a subsequent search of the car, and pulled a plastic bag cinched shut with a hair tie from the driver's side door. The bag contained 92 grams of a white powder, Tide laundry detergent to be exact. Crull wasn't overly alarmed until O'Leary came back to the van, told Crull the substance had actually tested positive for heroin. He was carted off to jail, with bail set at $500,000.

Potentially 80 Other Cases May Be Tossed

At the same time Crull felt his life was imploding, it turns out the real danger was O'Leary. The state district attorney's office was already on to O'Leary after it turned out that three of his "positive field tests" for drugs were actually lies. The state's regional lab found that one was just a headache powder, another was sand, and Crull's was Tide. O'Leary was fired soon thereafter, and already 11 people have been released from jail, based on O'Leary's faked test results. During the 11 months that O'Leary has been a sheriff in this county, he has made 80 drug arrests. It's possible all of those arrested may now walk free based on the potentially erroneous results, and therefore creating a shadow of doubt.

The Problem With Field Tests

We don't know yet if O'Leary had intentionally lied about test results. What we do know is that field tests on illegal drugs are often wrong.

According to one study, field tests can produce false positives anywhere from one-fifth to one-third of the times they are used. Sometimes it is because of a crooked cop. But often, and even potentially in this case, it is because the $2 field-test kits are rather unreliable. According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, 21 percent of evidence listed as methamphetamine turned out not to be meth after all. And about half of that 21 percent turned out not to be any sort of drugs.

Sometimes cops don't understand how to read the test results. But other times, false positives turn up on substances, in fact 80 other substances are known to turn cocaine tests positive, including household cleaners, specifically laundry detergent. Perhaps like Crull's.

If you are facing drug possession charges, and you think that an erroneous field test might be to blame, contact a local criminal defense attorney. These are serious charges that can change your whole life. Don't be pressured into taking a guilty plea by a lawyer that thinks it's in your best interest to serve less time. Only you know your best interest.

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