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Florida Officials Investigating Unreliable Drug-Test Kits and State Crime Lab Backlog

Aug 21, 2015

Tampa Bay, Florida, law enforcement officials are investigating why the state's crime lab is so backlogged, leading to lengthy incarcerations for people arrested with substances believed to be illegal drugs.

"We have men and women sitting in jail languishing if they cannot make bond awaiting that scientific testing that should be performed immediately," Hillsborough Circuit Judge Gregory Holder told television station Fox 13. The tests often take months.

Judge Holder says the goal of the law enforcement officials is to figure out why the state crime lab is so backlogged. In February, for example, a military officer was arrested based on a field drug test that showed a pill in his pocket was meth. That test was wrong but it took the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) nearly five months to clear his name. "Injustice pretty much sums it up perfectly," Judge Holder told Fox 13. Judge Holder said the state cannot turn law enforcement officers into scientists, expecting them to test samples in the field when there is no evidence to support the reliability of the test kits they use.

Fox 13 reports that its own 6-month investigation showed repeatedly how unreliable the test kits are. Researchers in a forensics research lab tested the kits and Fox witnessed positive results for illegal drugs obtained for aspirin, cough medicine, coffee, and spices like oregano. Even an air sample tested positive, Fox 13 reports. These drug-testing kits are used by law enforcement officers all over the country in making drug arrests. Judge Holder says he's appalled by the situation and says there must be a better way to handle the testing. According to Holder, FDLE does not have enough lab techs to handle the load of confirmatory drug testing and so the tests often take many months to complete.

Public defender Julie Holt and State Attorney Mark Ober are among those working with Holder to push for additional funding to allow more timely testing of suspected drugs in the possession of people who are arrested. Holder said Fox 13 viewers should not think they are not affected by the testing problem. "[I]f it affects any human being then it affects us all," he said.

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