If you have been following the news lately, you may have seen a New York Times article about a woman who was jailed for months after police misidentified her cotton candy for drugs. How is this possible? Unfortunately, it happens all the time, and is not limited to drug identification. The forensic methods used by prosecutors and law enforcement are often not repeatable, and use methods that are not scientifically sound.
Everyday items can test positive for illegal substances
There are countless news stories that describe roadside drug testing kits that develop false positives. Some examples include: Tylenol PM testing as cocaine, chocolate kisses giving a false positive for marijuana, cough syrup being positive for heroin and much more. Because a roadside drug test is not done in a controlled setting by non-scientists, the chances of error are much more likely. Unfortunately, the real world stakes could not be higher for defendants.
Because courts look to other court opinions to apply the facts of their case to the law, when bad science is allowed in the courtroom it has a domino effect on the administration of justice. When a forensic technique that cannot be repeated using the same set of conditions and a different analyst is accepted at face value by the legal system, it is a recipe for widespread wrongful convictions. Furthermore, many defendants who are wrongfully accused feel they have no other alternative than to accept a plea deal.
Bad science and confirmation bias
Many state crime laboratories are not accredited, which means that an independent third party organization reviews their handling and methodology techniques to verify accuracy. Even worse, most of the manufacturers of roadside drug testing kits used by police are not regulated or disclose warnings about the expected margin of error on the product. Police are often untrained on the risk of false positives. Accreditation, training, and warnings are all important because of a concept called confirmation bias, which basically means that when someone wants or expects a certain result that they will ignore indicators that put that conclusion into question.
A wrongful conviction based on bad forensics will follow you for the rest of your life, long after you are released from jail. If you are ever pulled over and arrested by police for drug possession when you did not have drugs in your car, it is important that you do not accept a guilty plea bargain if one is offered. Roadside drug tests are notoriously unreliable, and have resulted in innocent people being convicted. You should call a defense attorney immediately to represent you.