No, this is not The Onion. A gun owner in Florida has a count of armed possession of meth on his record because a police test mixed up Krispy Kreme doughnut crumbs for methamphetamine. But at least he got $37,500 for his trouble.
On December 11, 2015, 64-year-old Daniel Rushing dropped off a friend at chemotherapy and was giving an older woman a drive home from his church when police pulled him over for driving 42 miles-per-hour in a 30 zone.
Orlando Police Officer Shelby Riggs-Hopkins saw Rushing’s concealed-weapons permit with his driver’s license, and he confirmed he had a pistol. She asked him to step out of the car and allow officers to search his vehicle. Rushing tried to make a deal — they could search the car, if he wouldn’t be ticketed. He got more than he had bargained for.
Four police officers conducted a very thorough search, and Riggs-Hopkins asked him, “You want to tell me about what we found?”
“There’s nothing to find,” he responded.
But in her notes, Riggs-Hopkins recorded spotting “a rock like substance on the floor board where his feet were,” The Orlando Sentinel reported. “I recognized through my eleven years of training and experience as a law enforcement officer the substance to be some sort of narcotic.” Again, not The Onion.
“I kept telling them, ‘That’s … glaze from a doughnut. … They tried to say it was crack cocaine at first, then they said, ‘No, it’s meth, crystal meth,” Rushing recalled.
Even Riggs-Hopkins’ report admitted, “Rushing stated that the substance is sugar from a Krispie Kreme Donut that he ate.” Apparently, the officer was utterly convinced Rushing was lying — through his teeth.
He was booked on charges of possessing meth while armed with a weapon, and spent more than 10 hours in jail before being released on bail. While in jail, Rushing asked God, “Lord, what am I doing here?”
“It was funny,” Rushing told NPR, “because I called my wife to tell her what happened, and the guy next to me waiting for the phone started to laugh. He said, ‘This is crazy. I think you got a real good lawsuit here.”
When police tested the white substance at the scene, it tested positive for narcotics, but later tests proved Rushing was telling the truth. A ProPublica/New York Times investigation last year found that tens of thousands of people are sent to jail each year based on false positive results from similar narcotics kits.
Some tests “use a single tube of a chemical called cobalt thiocyanate, which turns blue when it is exposed to cocaine. But cobalt thiocyanate also turns blue when it is exposed to more than 80 other compounds, including methadone, certain acne medications and several common household cleaners,” the investigation found.
“Other tests use three tubes, which the officer can break in a specific order to rule out everything but the drug in question — but if the officer breaks the tubes in the wrong order, that, too, can invalidate the results.” Even the environment can have devastating effects on the reliability of these tests.
Data from a state law enforcement lab in Florida found that 21 percent of the evidence recorded by police as methamphetamine was not in fact meth, and that half of that was not illegal drugs at all. “When we examined the department’s records, they showed that officers, faced with somewhat ambiguous directions on the pouches, had simply misunderstood which colors indicated a positive result.”
Tragically, this means that around one in ten people with meth charges are really in jail for driving while in possession of acne treatment or household cleaner.
This report did help Rushing decide to file a lawsuit against the city of Orlando after the charges against him were dropped. Although police put him in jail right away, they also sent the evidence from Rushing’s car to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for further testing, where it was definitively ruled not to be a controlled substance.
The gun owner said he had reached a settlement two weeks ago, and the city had given him $37,500 in damages.
An Orlando police spokeswoman said after the incident, the department conducted an internal investigation and officers were given additional training in how to use their narcotic test kits. They still use the NIK tests associated with the high rate of false positives, however.
The Safariland Group behind the NIK tests told ProPublica that it provides all law enforcement agencies with comprehensive field test training manuals. The company also clarified that “the tests are presumptive aids that serve only as confirmation of probable cause and are not a substitute for laboratory testing.”
“I’m thinking about running for statehouse next year. And if I do, I’d like to get something done about these kits,” Rushing said. He has worked alongside the police as a parks department employee for more than 25 years, and his brother is a former Orlando cop, so he bears no ill will to the police, he said. He even described Riggs-Hopkins as “very polite and nice.”
Rushing learned two things from this encounter. He said he no longer eats Krispy Kreme doughnuts in the car, and he declared, “I’ll never let anyone search my car again.”
The gun owner’s struggle is far from over, however. He still has to get his record expunged. He said he would like to work in security, but has run into trouble getting business with a record of being arrested for possession of meth while armed.
Unfortunately, Rushing’s story is far from the only one. Another man in Florida — and even in an area nearby Orlando — was also falsely charged of narcotics possession, but he wasn’t nearly so lucky.
Karlos Cashe was pulled over in March of this year for driving without headlights and was arrested when out-of-date records suggested he was out past his curfew (which had expired at the time). Police saw white dust on the floorboards of Cashe’s car — and it tested positive for cocaine, ABC affiliate WFTV reported.
“I know for a fact [that] it’s drywall because I’m a handyman,” Cashe told WFTV. “I said that continuously during the arrest stop.”
Because he was accused of violating probation, Cashe was denied bond, and spent 90 days in jail. Finally, after nearly three months, lab tests concluded that there were no drugs in the car at the time of his arrest. He left the jail in June. Cashe has said he is looking for a lawyer to handle a lawsuit on his behalf.
Law abiding citizens should not be jailed for 90 days — or even 10 hours — because police rushed to conclusions. A one-in-five rate of false positives may be acceptable for field tests, but police need to take those results with a grain of salt. Perhaps if a suspect insists the white powdery residue is acne medication, police should listen.
Law enforcement doesn’t want to have to pay $37,500 for one in five drug cases, or even one in ten. Rushing’s case seems already to have incentivized the Orlando PD to make some changes, and if Cashe’s likely lawsuit prevails, those incentives are likely to get even stronger.