Target: Joseph Lombardo, Clark County Sheriff
Goal: Stop using cheap, unreliable drug tests to warrant arrests and criminal convictions.
While drug tests used by police on the scene are not meant to warrant arrests, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) has been using them as the primary indicator of possession of an illegal substance for years. Their own lab sent a report to the Justice Department stating that the tests are known to give false positives, yet 5,000 arrests were made in 2015 alone based on their results. Cities around the country use these field tests to varying degrees, but most do not depend on their results since they know they are not always accurate.
To use a field test, officers put a powder or some plant matter into a pouch of chemicals and wait for specific colors to emerge, which indicate an illegal substance. Both police and prosecutors affirm these tests, so judges end up trusting them too. Of the 4,600 convictions made from those 5,000 arrests, three-fourths relied on the results of field tests. These convictions were made even after the lab found that some uncontrolled substances triggered reactions and after repeated suggestions that the drug tests not be used, especially for methamphetamine and cocaine. There is no way of knowing the margin of error as the department does not keep sufficient records of tested substances.
Three hundred people each year may have unnecessarily had their lives turned upside down by LVMPD. It is alleged that prosecutors for this jurisdiction often resist quickly retesting evidence in the lab and that kits often lay around for days before being sent, while people sit in jail with high bails. Most convictions that resulted from drug arrests also involved plea deals, and two-thirds of those deals were taken before the lab had retested the kits. Many take the deals because they have jobs and families they need to attend to, which they can do while on probation.
Even one of the major suppliers of the drug tests has stated that they should not be used to deliver prosecutions. The police department for Las Vegas and Cook County knows these tests are not always accurate, yet they are using them to convict people by the thousands. Sign this petition to demand that police stop arresting citizens based on these tests and that prosecutors and judges stop relying on their results to convict people.
Dear Sheriff Lombardo,
Despite mounting evidence that field tests are not effective enough to determine if a substance is illegal or not, your department has continued utilizing them to their full extent. Your county made 4,600 drug convictions in one year based off the results from these kits, and it is estimated that around 300 of these people likely took plea deals for crimes they did not commit. Your own lab has reported findings of inaccuracies, yet judges and prosecutors still rely on results from field tests.
Houston keeps records of all their test kits and was able to identify an issue similar to the one your jurisdiction is facing. When they discovered how inaccurate the drug tests were, they changed their policies so that lab tests carried more weight in prosecutions, as they should. I urge you to follow in their steps and update your procedures so that field tests do not wrongfully convict more people.
[Your Name Here]
Photo Credit: U.S. Customs and Border Protection