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Roadside Drug Testing Reliability in Utah

Utah Criminal Defense Lawyer - Drug CasesThe incidents described below have been reported by media in other states and raise important issues concerning presumptive field tests used by police to attempt to identify illegal drugs. These same methods and procedures are often used by Utah law enforcement officers. If you are facing prosecution for drug crimes or other offenses in Utah, contact us today to see what the right criminal defense attorney can do for you.

Are roadside drug tests (field tests) reliable?

Posted November 20, 2017

In December 2015, a driver was pulled over for a minor traffic violation. During the stop, the police officer noticed some crystal flakes of the floor of the car. The driver insisted that the crystals were just flakes of glaze from a Krispy Kreme doughnut. The officer with her years of training and experience, didn’t buy it. Believing the substance was “some sort of narcotic,” police officers used a roadside test kit to test the substance, and the results came up positive for methamphetamine. The driver was arrested and charged with possession of methamphetamine.

Evidence gathered from the car was sent for further testing at the state's crime lab. These results vindicated the driver - showing that the crystalline flakes were not a controlled substance.

In a similar and more recent incident, another driver who was employed as a handyman was pulled over for driving without headlights. Police saw on the floor of the car some white dust. The driver knew the substance was simply drywall dust, but officers were still suspicious and tested the substance with a field test kit. Results showed positive for cocaine. The driver was arrested and charged with possession of cocaine.

Inexpensive field tests like the ones used by police in these two cases are used by police departments around the country. Mounds of evidence show these tests routinely produce false positives and are far from reliable. They appear to be simple, but a lot can go wrong. An investigation by ProPublica and The New York Times found that tens of thousands of people are sent to jail based on the results of a roadside drug test.

“Some tests…use a single tube of a chemical called cobalt thiocyanate, which turns blue when it is exposed to cocaine. But cobalt thiocyanate also turns blue when it is exposed to more than 80 other compounds, including methadone, certain acne medications and several common household cleaners. Other tests use three tubes, which the officer can break in a specific order to rule out everything but the drug in question — but if the officer breaks the tubes in the wrong order, that, too, can invalidate the results. The environment can also present problems. Cold weather slows the color development; heat speeds it up, or sometimes prevents a color reaction from taking place at all.”

Despite the many problems with using these roadside test kits, police departments continue to use them. Many people are charged with drug possession based on field test results as evidence.

Finding a Criminal Defense Lawyer in Utah

Utah Criminal Lawyer in Salt Lake CityThe fact that an officer sees something that "looks like" drugs (a white crystalline substance, a powdery residue, a green leafy substance, etc.) does not necessarily mean that what the officer sees is in fact a controlled substance. Looks can be deceiving - the picture at the top of this article is actually just ordinary table salt.

IF you have been cited, arrested, or charged for drug-related charges in Utah based on the results of a preliminary field test performed by a police officer, there may be a number of potential defenses available to you. Contact us today to see the difference an experienced criminal defense attorney can make in your case.


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Serving Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, Utah, Cache, Tooele, Summit, Box Elder, and Wasatch Counties, and all of Utah.

Attorney Stephen Howard practices as part of the Canyons Law Group, LLC and Stephen W. Howard, PC.

Offices in Salt Lake and Davis Counties
560 South 300 East, Suite 200, Salt Lake City, UT 84111
952 S. Main St., Suite A, Layton, UT 84041

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In Salt Lake City, call 801-449-1409.
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