Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Unconfirmed UAs aren't accurate but used anyway

After all the allegations that the Bexar County probation department made supervision decisions based on faulty, unconfirmed urinalysis tests, I was interested to see a USA Today story ("False results put drug tests under the microscope," Nov. 3) reported by scribe Mimi Hall describing the same problem with a national scope, the:
use of unreliable field drug-test kits as the basis to arrest innocent people on illegal drug charges.

The inexpensive test kits are used by virtually every police department in the country and by federal agents, including Customs officers at the nation's borders. The kits test suspicious materials, and a positive result generally leads to an arrest and court date, pending more sophisticated tests done after the sample is sent to a lab.

The kits use powerful acids that react with the substance in a plastic pouch. If the liquid turns a certain color, it is a considered a positive result. But a number of legal products and plants test positive: chocolate for hashish; rosemary for marijuana; and natural soaps for the "date-rape drug" GHB.

"The tests have no validity," says former FBI narcotics investigator Frederick Whitehurst. And as more organic products come on the market, "the potential for civil rights violations when these presumptive tests are out there is phenomenal." ...

Government officials say there are no records on the number of people who have been wrongly arrested because of the tests. Garrison Courtney of the Drug Enforcement Agency says the test kits are "not perfect but they give you a pretty good idea" whether a suspicious substance is an illegal drug.

Allen Miller of Forensic Source, which makes kits, says they find "families of chemical compounds" and are not meant to be definitive. Any arrest should be the result of good investigative police work, Miller says.

At a minimum, confirmation tests (or admission of use by the testee) should be mandatory before taking either judicial or administrative action, and people should only be required to pay for the confirmation test if it comes back positive - if it exonerates them, the probationer (or whoever's being tested) shouldn't have to pay.

Sloppy forensic science isn't just a problem in high profile rape and murder cases, which is the impression you might get looking only at the long string of Texas-based DNA exonerations - it's just as big a source of false accusations (if not much more common) in penny ante cases where the stakes may not be high enough to justify the risk and expense of fighting them.

CORRECTION: To my chagrin, a commenter corrects me to point out the USA Today article "is talking about field testing on the actual substances found... not urinalysis drug tests." Looking at the story again, that's totally right and I apologize for the error. That said, the principle is the same. When we know cheaper forensics have a higher error rate, access to confirmation tests shouldn't be optional or based on budget concerns.


Don said...

I've written about this before, but the drug tests were a pet peeve of mine when I worked with probation departments. I am an LCDC and this is where I worked mostly. They never get the proper confirmations. Well, some do, but mostly not. They use this junk science to revoke probation, and nobody questions it. It was maddening. I sent two of my clients for hair analyses which were negative, but nobody cared. Crap such as that prompted me to retire early.

FleaStiff said...

Quite frankly, if they are on probation its probably because did something bad and are probably continuing to do something bad and probably will always continue to do something bad.
So why should they get Good Forensics at all much less get Good Forensics at taxpayer's expense?
Lets get some picketers out there: Junk Science Is Good Enough For Junk People!!!

Anonymous said...

fleastiff , would you rather pay for their stay in prison after they are revoked for a false UA?
Check out the difference in housing a felon and double checking a UA . Not everyone continues to do bad things, some are rehabilitated.

Don said...

to fleastiff: got a lot of probablys there, don't you? Your comment doesn't really deserve a response, but one reason why they should get "good forensics" is because of that document that is a never ending source of irritation to your ilk, called the Constitution, and the pesky ol' 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments, especially probable cause. People on probation are not necessarily "junk" people. But I wonder about bigots like you. I'll take the "junk" people anytime, given a choice.

Anonymous said...

I am a person that did something bad. I did not continue to bad things. That was 11 years ago. I went to college and got married had 3 great kids and have a wonderful job in finance.
I will be off my 10 year probation in June of next year. I have never had a dirty UA because I don't use drugs. If I were to have had a false positive it would have been devestating for not only myself but for everyone in my family. It would have surely made it that much harder to move on with my life and continue doing "good" things.

BTW, Thanks GFB, I love reading your blog! :)

Anonymous said...


I was on probation not too long ago. I enjoyed taking UA's, I thought it helped show that I was serious in straightening out my life. A Proof that I was living by the rules. One day I get this call from my PO. Says that my UA came back Deluted, so I was obviously taking drugs and had 'cleaned out' my system.

I can tell you, I have never taken any form of illegal drug. not one puff, stick, or swallow. that isn't in my adult life either, I mean NEVER. Yet, here we have a PO telling me that I obviously was on something and she was gonna send me to prison..'

Turns out that Diet pills flush you. Flush you completely. I didn't know that. All I knew at the time was I was 40 pounds over weight and my wife raved about these diet pills that would help. well I did lose the 40 pounds, and almost lost my freedom because of it. So before you talk out of your ass so flippantly, maybe you should look at those that are in the majority that are trying to re-do their lives for the better.

FleaStiff said...

Dear Ten Year Probationer:
I'm glad you changed and that you didn't get caught up in any False Positives. I have an idea, perhaps groundless perhaps well-grounded, that you are somewhat unique.
It would be nice if we had PRECISE tools but that broad stripe down the center of the highway can't be painted with a tiny little artist's brush. I know prison cells are expensive, but correctional guards don't mind that any more than the stockholders in prison firms or prison construction firms mind it.
Its like a million dollar headline making murder trial: very expensive but the local restaurants make a fortune from selling liquor to all the hundreds of reporters who descend on the trial.

We go thru 'Screening Theater Skits" at airports. We go thru Drug Screening Skits at the probation department. The cops use Voice Stress or Polygraph Skits all the time.

Providing endless forensically precise testing is expensive and the people shuffling the papers don't really much care for precise results anyway. They get their raises based on results; not precisely correct results.

Anonymous said...

Look closely. . .Flea may be playing a bit, but there are people out there who really, actually think that way. . .

Don said...

Fleastiff: I have no idea why we continue to waste time and thought on you; you obviously don't, and never will, get it. Drug testing is inaccurate at it's best; that is when everything is done according to best practices and the MS/GC confirmations are done like they are supposed to be. That is no reason to not do the best we can. But you are obviously one of those people who believe that only the guilty ever get accused. And since you never do anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about re shoddy forensics. I hope you don't get caught up in a broken system and lose part of your freedom for something you didn't do. Because I think you are probably not a bad person; just tragically uninformed and misguided. Your "idea" that Anon 8:56 is unique is obviously off the wall, as you really admit. If it were "well grounded" you would probably know it. This is a great blog and most of the people who post on it have some knowledge, information, or experience about that which they opine. You are just mindlessly slinging crap around, and everybody will know it. If you care, do some research.

Anonymous said...

Grits ----

That USA today article you reference is talking about field testing on the actual substances found... not urinalysis drug tests.

To Don ---- hair analysis vs. urine may not show more recent use of drugs.If you're an LCDC or know anything about drug tests you should know this.

Fleastiff ---- I'm afraid you've got some issues and should just stop blogging altogether.

To the diet pill guy .... congrats on losing the weight.... dilute drug tests can raise suspicion and the PO was trying to put some pressure on you. Unfortunately, she should have been smart enough to ask if you had been taking any medecine.... also if your sample was dilute then they must have been getting lab results and not using field tests which is good.

For the rest, there are no probation departments or judges out there that are going to revoke probation or lock you up for one dirty drug test.

Don said...

To Anon 11:32. For your information,I know most of the things that an LCDC "should" know. The details of the cases I was talking about would clear you up, but I won't bother, because you may not be interested in the facts. Also, it may or may not be true that no probation officer or judge will lock you up for one positive UA. I doubt that you know that. However, whether or not you are locked up, the principal is the same. You will not be regarded the same, and it will enhance a case for revoking, if that's what they want to do. I worked directly or indirectly for/with at least a dozen probation departments in rural areas of West Texas, for 20 years. If you have more basis for knowing what you are talking about than that, then I'll be happy to let you educate me as to what I "should" know "if" if am an LCDC.

Anonymous said...

1132, as a probation officer we lock up all the time for one dirty UA. No calls to the probationer or anything-we just file a MTR on the first UA. We have 24 hours or we will get a write up. We do not take account for the legal drugs the defendant takes from his doctor. Yes, we use those crappy strip tests with no confirmations. Yes, even the strip tests makers tell you that you need a confirmation.Yes, I work in Bexar.
Yes, we no better but know one cares.

Anonymous said...

I am the 10yr probationer...
I live in Williamson County and I report in Bexar.
I know the PO's in Bexar County don't mess around over there and I know plenty of people who have been locked up for one dirty UA.

I just say no, actually, in my experience, when you stop hanging around "certain" people - nobody asks...

But next year when I am off probation... J/K! :)

Anonymous said...

Well, if Fleastiff's policies are correct, then neither George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama should have held the presidency--in fact, they should all still be sitting in jail because of their admitted drug taking during youth--"junk people" that they are--right?

Don said...

So where did Anon 1132 go? We need more of his/her superior knowledge and education.

Anonymous said...

As a probation officer we use an in house machine for urinalysis testing and then confront the offender with the results. If the offender denies, or the testing will be used in Court, we ALWAYS, please underline ALWAYS, have the test confirmed by a outside certified laboratory, PERIOD!

Anonymous said...

TO BLOG 11:32 AM

Per your STUPID remark:


What planet are you living on or shall I say what ILLEGAL drug are you on. With over 20 years experience as an actively employed Adult Probation officer in Bexar County, San Antonio, Texas, it happens everyday.

Grits needs to post all the related blogs pertaining to Bexar County's current problems with false positives. The director, Bill Fitzgerald fired the Union President because she exposed the very thing you are in denial of.

In comparison, you probable believe every police office in the country tell's the truth while under OATH. YEA RIGHT!!!

blog 11:32: Are you an employed administrator at the Bexar County Probation Dept.

Don said...

To Bexar County Probation Officer: I think anon 1132 said "Oops" and went on his/her happily uninformed way when it became clear that some people on this blog knew he/she didn't know what the hell of which he/she waxed idiotic.