Inaccurate drug test lands Draper couple in jail for two and a half months
(KUTV) Gale Griffin and her husband Wendell Harvey are truck drivers who have been transporting explosives for the military for years.
They have top security clearance, and they’ve never been in trouble with the law. So in May, while driving through Arkansas, they weren't concerned when police stopped them in Fort Chaffee.
"We have no relationship with anyone who deals drugs,” said Harvey, who is a former police officer.
Harvey watched as the police pulled three baggies filled with baking soda out of the cab of the truck.
“I told them, ‘That’s baking soda,’” Harvey said.
The police then tested the substance.
“We tested it three different times,” said Chuck Bowen with Fort Chaffee Police. “We got a positive conclusion each time we tested.”
With that, police informed the couple they were in legal trouble.
"He said, ‘You have over $3,000 in cocaine,’” Griffin said.
“I told him, 'I've never had two nickels to rub together, are you crazy?'" Griffin said. "Then [the police officer] said, 'I’ve never had two nickels to rub together either, but now I’m the owner of your truck.”
He went on to say the police confiscated their truck, put them behind bars and held the couple on $10,000 bail.
“I felt cut off from reality; it felt very strange — someplace that doesn’t feel like America to me,” Harvey said.
The couple spent two-and-a-half months in jail, unable to make bail.
“It was just crawling with bugs — it was unbelievably cold, blasting, blasting cold air,” Griffin said.
She said she was only allowed out of her cell for an hour a day and the conditions where horrible.
“For the first three or four weeks, I just shivered. I didn’t have any socks,” Griffin said.
Eventually, the state of Arkansas tested the substance at the insistence of the Arkansas Public Defender’s office. All the test came back negative, meaning the white powdery substance was not cocaine.
How could this happen? In part, it is due to the field test that most law enforcement across the country uses.
The test for cocaine is called the Scott Reagent Field test, costs $2 each and it is used by almost all law enforcement agencies, including those in Utah.
“They are not infallible; they are subject to misreading,” said Greg Parrish with the Arkansas Public Defender’s Office.
Data appears to back that up.
In Las Vegas, authorities reexamined a sampling of field tests conducted from 2010 to 2013 and found that 33 percent of them had resulted in false positives. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement says 21 percent of evidence they believed to be meth, was, after further testing, not meth at all.
Studies also show that more than 100,000 people are convicted or plead guilty to drug charges based on these tests each year.
Most Utah law enforcement agencies uses some form of these tests.
“I’m not saying it doesn’t happen — it’s just I’m not aware of a case we’ve dealt with where that is the case,” said Sgt. Spencer Cannon with the Utah County Sheriff’s office.
He said his agency uses the test as a way to get probable cause, and he feels they are reasonably accurate.
After Cannon showed 2News' Chris Jones how to use one of the substance tests, Jones went online and purchased the same test police use.
Using household items like Comet, aspirin, cold medicine and chocolate, four of the 10 items resulted in a false positive.
Salt Lake County Prosecutor Sim Gill said that if there are problems with the test that is concerning — or if the District Attorney’s office takes a drug case to trial — the evidence must undergo a more accurate laboratory test.
“If the prosecution is going to move forward, we are going to insist on that it has a lab test or a [toxicology] review is done that will actually confirm that the substance in the field is what the officer believed it to be,” Gill said.
As for Harvey and Griffin, they only recently got their truck back from Arkansas authorities. But they say the truck has major damage that requires repairs.
The couple also said they have not worked since they were released from jail. They said they are still trying to get their security clearance reinstated, and that they are running out of money.
Harvey said what is especially concerning to him and his wife is the fact that other people may have been victimized by this test.
“If they did what they did to us, you know — two law abiding citizens, there’s no telling how many mistakes they’ve made.”