298 Texas drug suspects pleaded guilty before lab tests showed roadside drug test was wrong
POSTED JUL 20, 2016 07:30 AM CDT
BY DEBRA CASSENS WEISS
Nearly 300 people pleaded guilty to drug possession in Harris County, Texas, even though later lab tests found no drugs in samples that initially came up positive in a roadside test.
The findings were made in a 2014 audit of drug cases since 2004 by the Harris County District Attorney’s office, the Houston Chronicle (sub. req.) reports.
In many of the 298 cases where defendants pleaded guilty before lab results exonerated them, the defendants were unable to post bail and pleaded guilty to earn a quicker release from custody. Even misdemeanor drug suspects in Texas are often required to post bail.
The Houston Chronicle story follows a Pro Publica investigation, co-published July 7 with the New York Times Magazine, that alleged that the field test used in Harris County is “far from reliable.”
The test, which is also used in other cities, relies on a chemical called cobalt thiocyanate that turns blue when it is exposed to cocaine. But the chemical also turns blue in the presence of 80 other compounds, including methadone, some acne medications and several household cleaners, according to Pro Publica.
The chemist who developed the roadside test used in Harris County is L.J. Scott Jr. and his company is the Scott Company. He defended his test in a January interview, Pro Publica reports in a July 11 article.
“Usually, the guy involved in drugs knows he’s dealing in drugs,” Scott told Pro Publica. “And if he is innocent, and it’s not a drug, he’s probably not going to plead. If he is dealing in cocaine or meth or heroin, the odds are he’d love to have a plea.”
Scott acknowledged that no field test is fail-safe, and said he would have field tests confirmed in a lab.
Scott’s roadside test isn’t the only one accused of false positive results. Three civil suits filed in different states have named two other test makers as defendants. And Harris County wasn’t the only jurisdiction that allowed guilty pleas based on field tests alone. (Harris County no longer accepts felony drug pleas before the roadside test results are confirmed by the lab.)
Pro Publica found such pleas are allowed in dozens of cities, including Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Newark, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Diego, Seattle and Tampa.