A joint investigation by ProPublica and the New York Times presents a troubling look at how "unknown tens of thousands" of Americans have their lives ruined by false drug arrests. The problem stems from a $2 drug-test kit used by police departments around the country. They've been around for more than 40 years and haven't changed much in their simplicity: A police officer drops a suspected sample of a drug into a vial of liquid, and if the liquid turns the wrong color, the arrest is made. The story details the many ways the field tests can go wrong, so much so that they're generally inadmissible in court. The problem, though, is that the vast majority of such arrests never end up at trial—those arrested typically plea to lesser charges to avoid the possibility of a lengthy sentence.
The story uses the example of 43-year-old Amy Albritton, who took a plea deal and three weeks in jail after a field test suggested she had cocaine in her car, no matter how much she insisted to the contrary. She lost her job and her apartment, and her new felony record kept her from getting any kind of meaningful new work. Turns out, the test was a false positive, which she learned only when informed by the journalists working on this story. "Every year at least 100,000 people nationwide plead guilty to drug-possession charges that rely on field-test results as evidence," write Ryan Gabrielson and Topher Sanders. "At that volume, even the most modest of error rates could produce thousands of wrongful convictions." It's unclear what the standard error rate is on the kits, but follow-up testing at individual departments suggest that it's far from "modest." Click for the full story.