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Questions raised about the reliability of portable drug tests

Police officers in Illinois and around the country often rely on portable drug-testing kits to help them determine whether or not motorists are impaired, but media reports about a Florida man wrongly accused of methamphetamine possession after eating a glazed donut have raised doubts about their reliability. The tests are inexpensive and easy for police officers in the field to use, but civil rights advocates say that they are the cause of tens of thousands of false arrests and prosecutions each year.

In December 2015, a police officer in Orlando used one of these kits to test flakes of a white substance after pulling over a vehicle for speeding. The man behind the wheel claims that he told the officer that the substance on the floor of his car was doughnut glaze, but he was taken into custody and held for 10 hours after a portable drug test twice identified the substance as the Class A drug methamphetamine. Charges against the man were subsequently dropped after a forensic lab confirmed that the substance was, in fact, sugar.

The man has since filed a lawsuit against the city of Orlando and the kit manufacturer seeking damages of at least $15,000, and civil rights advocates say that his case should not be seen as an isolated incident. They point out that portable drug-testing kits generally produce results based on simple chemical reactions, but these reactions can be triggered by dozens of benign substances commonly found in medicine cabinets and pantries as well as illegal drugs.

Criminal defense attorneys may be familiar with the questions surrounding portable drug-testing kits, and they may recommend that prosecutors drop drug charges when the results provided by these kits are not supported by more reliable evidence. Attorneys could also urge their clients not to consent to voluntary searches of their vehicles, homes or persons.

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