Senator Wiener Introduces Bill to Limit Use of Inaccurate Roadside Drug Tests, a Leading Known Cause of Wrongful Convictions in the U.S.

from the Quattrone Center

Special to the Vanguard

Sacramento, CA – Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) introduced SB 912, the Requiring Objective and Accurate Drug Testing (ROAD Testing) Act. SB 912 prohibits law enforcement agencies from making arrests or filing charges on the basis of a color-based (colorimetric) drug test, a class of tests some jurisdictions use in the field to assess whether a substance contains an illegal compound, but which many jurisdictions have abandoned due to their extremely high error rate.

The bill does not ban the use of colorimetric tests, it only prevents officers from using them as the basis of arrest and charging decisions without verification from more accurate tests.

By preventing the improper use of these inaccurate tests, SB 912 eliminates the use of what appears to be the nation’s leading cause of wrongful convictions from the California criminal legal system.

A brand new report released from the University of Pennsylvania’s Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice found that colorimetric drug tests are the leading known cause of wrongful convictions in the country.

They found that, nationwide, approximately 773,000 people are arrested based on these inaccurate tests, and 30,000 of those will be falsely implicated even though they do not possess illegal substances.

The tests have a false positive rate as high as 38% in some contexts, and in most cases no confirmatory tests are being used to verify the results of colorimetric tests. Cotton candy, powdered milk, sugar, lidocaine, folic acid vitamins, bird feces, and even a loved one’s ashes have produced positive results on colorimetric tests.

Because of the absurdly high rate of inaccuracies, and out of concern for officer safety, jurisdictions across California have led the way in abandoning colorimetric drug tests. The San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Tracy Police Departments; the Kings, Madera, and Siskiyou County Sheriffs; and the California Highway Patrol (CHP) instead use accurate handheld lab-standard devices that can identify an exact substance.

Yet many jurisdictions still rely on these outdated and inaccurate tools—of the 216,886 people arrested on drug charges in California each year, approximately 4,099 will be wrongfully arrested and charged based on the results of colorimetric drug tests.

The use of these inaccurate tests also fuels racial inequity in the criminal legal system—Black Americans are subject to erroneous colorimetric drug tests at three times the rate of their white counterparts.

“With accurate, scientific alternatives available, there is no reason to rely on junk colorimetric tests to make arrests when a suspicious substance is discovered in the field,” said Senator Wiener. “Bogus drug tests like these undermine basic principles of justice and fairness. The use of these wildly inaccurate drug tests—already abandoned by a number of major law enforcement agencies—is unacceptable now that the risk of wrongful conviction has been confirmed.”

Though practices vary considerably between jurisdictions, false positive results are leading to wrongful convictions across the country. In a survey of 82 police agencies in 38 states in 2022, 76.8% of respondents report that they currently use colorimetric field tests in drug arrests. Another study found 94.4% of respondents reported processing or charging drug cases in which presumptive field testing had been used to identify suspected controlled substances. In Georgia, a positive result from a colorimetric test can establish the presence of an illegal substance beyond a reasonable doubt.

The use of these tests is particularly problematic, given that 95% of criminal cases in the U.S. criminal legal system are resolved through plea deals. In another survey of 18 prosecutorial offices in 15 states, 89% reported that guilty pleas are permitted without confirmatory testing (for example, follow-up testing by a lab to verify a positive field test). The use of inaccurate colorimetric drug tests is almost certainly leading innocent people to plead guilty to possession of an illegal drug in order to avoid jail time or extended litigation.

SB 912 will preclude law enforcement agencies from using the results of a colorimetric field drug test to establish probable cause for arrest or the institution of charges for drug possession, conviction, or sentencing prior to a reliable confirmatory test from a crime laboratory.

SB 912 is sponsored by the Roadside Drug Test Innocence Alliance.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

Related posts

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for