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Wrongful drug arrests linked to cheap quick-ID kits

In 2009, former Fort Wayne police officer Wendell Harvey decided to take a less stressful job — driving explosive-filled trucks for the military. The job required high-security clearance, which Harvey was granted after thorough background checks.

Harvey and his wife, Gale Griffin, had been driving trucks together for seven years without incident. In May 2016, a routine gate check at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, led to the discovery of a plastic bag filled with white powder in the couple's sleeper trailer. Multiple chemical tests conducted at the scene confirmed that the bag contained over $3,000 of cocaine. The truck was impounded and the couple arrested and jailed.

Two months later, Harvey and Griffin were released. After further testing, it turned out that the white powdered substance was not, in fact, cocaine — as the couple had argued all along.

The $2 Narcotics Identification Kit (NIK) that sent Harvey and Griffin to jail is used by law enforcement agencies throughout the United States. Prone to false positives and incorrect results, it has reportedly confused candy for meth, tortilla flour for cocaine and vitamins for amphetamines. Its low cost is perhaps its only selling point.

In this case, however, cost-cutting resulted in the unnecessary incarceration of two innocent people. Harvey and Griffin were held for 10 days until they were approved for a public defender. A further six weeks passed before one was assigned. The couple immediately contacted the prosecutor through their public defender, repeating their assertion that the substance was not cocaine and asking that it be retested.

With a competent and reliable attorney to push the prosecution into expediting the tests from the very beginning, the truth might have been revealed much sooner; it took another four weeks, however, for the prosecutor to request further analysis. Three days later, the results came back positive — for baking soda.

It took the couple two more months to get their truck back after being released from jail. The truck was badly damaged, adding insult to injury. And all of this was put into motion by an inaccurate $2 test. Harvey and Griffin were let down by the justice system, but their story shows that the counsel of an experienced criminal defense attorney is essential for anyone facing drug-related charges.

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