‘In the field’ drug tests play an enormous role in drug possession arrests and convictions in Texas, but according to a panel of Texas lawmakers and legal officials, the test kits used for field testing are too unreliable to form the basis of a proper criminal case. The Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission was formed in 2015 to research ways to stop wrongful convictions; in the panel’s final December 2016 report, the commission cited drug field tests’ “questionable reliability”, and called for prosecutors to use crime laboratories to confirm that evidence in drug possession cases actually contain an illegal drug.
In what might come as a surprise for many Texans, the commission’s findings of wrongful convictions are backed up by the Houston crime lab’s own internal research. According to the Houston crime laboratory, the field tests used by the prosecution in over 300 drug possession cases which resulted in conviction over the past ten years, gave a ‘false positive’ on substances that did not contain illegal drugs at all. The police department had relied upon inexpensive, over-the-counter drug testing kits to examine samples, and these unreliable testing kits had returned false positives for heroin, cocaine, MDMA, methamphetamine and marijuana. The prosecutor’s office then used these false positive results to induce guilty pleas.
While these results are shocking, the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission did note that there were some good reasons that police departments and prosecutor’s offices in Texas rely on drug field tests. Approximately 10,000 drug possession cases pass through the Texas criminal courts each year, and having official crime labs recheck all the evidence for each case would be so costly as to possibly be a detriment to taxpayers. Still, the commission asserted that such procedures were ultimately necessary to avoid further wrongful convictions: “Despite potential additional costs in implementing this practice, requiring laboratory testing of all drug field tests will reduce the risk of wrongfully arresting and convicting an individual of being in possession of a controlled substance.”
The commission’s skepticism of drug field test kits appears to have led to more widespread questioning of their use. The Texas Forensic Science Commission has announced that they are considering launching a formal investigation into drug field tests and the procedures surrounding their use.
The Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission’s call for a ban on the use of drug field tests in court was only one element of its overall proposed strategy to reduce wrongful convictions in Texas. In addition, the panel recommended that audio recordings be made of all police interrogations involving felony charges, required training for police officers to improve eyewitness identification, and more restrictive rules on jailhouse informant testimony. The commission’s report has been formally submitted to the Texas state legislature; from here, Texas lawmakers will have to consider enacting the report’s proposals into law.
If you feel that you were wrongly convicted based on evidence from a faulty field test kit, the experienced attorney at The Hill Law Firm can help you. We have over 50 years of experience in representing those wrongly convicted based on flawed scientific evidence. Contact our office today to discuss your options in wiping this erroneous conviction from your record.