PUBLISHER'S NOTE: Kudos to ProPublica for digging into this story - and actually achieving change in prosecution practices. It's sad to think about the numerous innocent people who pleaded guilty, thinking that the tests were infallible (and therefore could not be challenged) and therefore accepted the guilty pleas offered to them (read 'coerced') by the State. As Fault Lines columnist Thomas Johnson points out in the story, if the DA's office is conceding that these drug tests are often inaccurate, it should follow this assumption to its logical conclusion and work on changing this part of the system as well. If it's really interested in not ruining people's lives over a $2 drug test, it needs to push for greatly-reduced bail or no bail at all in cases where the only evidence at the time of booking is subject to a mandatory second pass."
Harold Levy: Publisher; The Charles Smith Blog;
"Thanks to ProPublica's research -- and a high-profile article in the New York Times -- prosecutors in Oregon will no longer accept guilty pleas based solely on the results of often-inaccurate field drug tests. Last July, shortly after ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine published an article detailing that the kits are prone to error and years earlier had helped account for roughly 300 wrongful convictions in Houston, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office in Portland decided to change the way it secured guilty pleas in drug possession cases. Today, when a defendant pleads guilty before the lab analysis is performed, prosecutors must still have the field test results double-checked. J. Russell Ratto, the head of conviction integrity at the district attorney’s office, had asked his colleagues whether it might be wise to change the policy after the article’s publication. “Our DDAs [deputy district attorneys] are always looking to make sure we’re using the very best practices,” said J.R. Ujifusa, the deputy district attorney who oversees drug prosecutions. It's a good start. The $2 drug tests are great for law enforcement drug warriors, but not much good for anyone else. The cheap tests, performed in the field by officers, have been known to call everything from baking soda to donut glaze illegal substances. This is often good enough for government work, especially when the government work involves obtaining convictions. Harris County, Texas -- where the 300 wrongful convictions were uncovered -- is also no longer accepting pleas based on field test results. But that only solves part of the problem. The other problem is what to do with those accused of drug possession. Treating the tests as fallible helps prevent wrongful convictions, but those facing drug charges remain locked up while waiting for lab test results. Thomas Johnson of Fault Lines points out that the Portland DA's office has its head and heart in the right place, but it won't do much for people picked up by cops utilizing $2 field drug tests, not until the rest of the system is overhauled. You have to give up what the court orders for bail. You can post a percentage of the bail, but it’s the judge who decides the bail amount. This bail amount can vary depending on the type of drug you’re suspected of possessing and your past record. For instance, if you have a violent incident on your record, it will increase the bail for your new charge. The same goes for a previous drug conviction..........Fault Line's Johnson suggests another solution: if the DA's office is conceding that these drug tests are often inaccurate, it should follow this assumption to its logical conclusion and work on changing this part of the system as well. If it's really interested in not ruining people's lives over a $2 drug test, it needs to push for greatly-reduced bail or no bail at all in cases where the only evidence at the time of booking is subject to a mandatory second pass."