Innocent Georgians are going to jail because of a faulty police field test. In fact, not long ago, Doraville police officers pulled over two Ghanaian newlyweds, Simon Cofie and Clarice Daku, because their license plate was obscured. During the stop, officers found “suspicious” pills in Simon’s car, which Clarice maintained were over-the-counter vitamins. After the officer’s disposable $2 NARK II field test kit determined that the pills were Ecstasy, the police arrested the couple for drug trafficking.
Case close and justice served, right? Unfortunately, no. Around five months later, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation confirmed that the pills were not an illegal substance; they were evidently fertility vitamins. Despite this, the newlyweds languished in jail for two weeks before a judge agreed to release them on their own recognizance. This decision came after Simon missed his United States naturalization ceremony and Clarice lost her job. The NARK II field test had produced a false positive and nearly destroyed the couple’s lives.
Unfortunately, this is not the first instance of the NARK II test and other drug field tests (called NIK tests) providing false positives — making it past time to address this flawed tool.
In Georgia, multiple law enforcement agencies employ these types of field tests. NARK II comes in small pouches filled with a clear liquid designed to chemically react to different substances. When police find suspected illegal drugs, an officer takes a sample and drops it into the NARK II pouch. If the liquid turns dark blue, the officer has probable cause to believe that the substance is contraband. If the liquid turns lavender, drugs are not detected.
At first blush, the NARK II field test seems so simple that it should be perfect for field operations. Unfortunately, the test is dangerously fallible. NARK II’s makers themselves hedge against their product by recognizing its shortcomings. In fact, their website reads, “ALL TEST RESULTS MUST BE CONFIRMED BY AN APPROVED ANALYTICAL LABORATORY!” Moreover, NARK II results are not admissible in court as evidence of guilt, which further demonstrates the test’s flaws.
Even if the NARK II system consistently worked properly, other issues should give law enforcement officials pause. First, lavender and dark blue do not appear that dissimilar – especially at nighttime when many police operations are underway. Second, 1 out of 12 men are colorblind to some degree. Given that law enforcement is a male-dominated industry, this means that many within the profession likely have difficulty differentiating between NARK II’s chemical reactions.
If freedom and livelihoods were not hanging in the balance, the list of substances that have triggered NARK II and other NIK false-positives would be almost comical. Splenda and cotton candy have tested positive for amphetamines, breath mints for crack and Goody’s Headache Powder for cocaine. But the problem is not limited to these few instances. In fact, the GBI crime lab has disproven at least 145 NIK test results in a single year.
Given the frequency of false positives, an improved test must be developed and adopted. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen overnight. In the interim, there are ways to reduce wrongful arrests — or at least the length of wrongful incarcerations. Larger police departments should invest in more reliable testing equipment that can be housed in their stations. To support smaller localities, the GBI crime lab ought to deliver its findings much more quickly than five months. Finally, law enforcement officers in general should not solely rely on NIK tests to arrest individuals.
Some top cops and law enforcement agencies agree with these recommendations and have already reduced their reliance on NIK tests. In these locales, if there is little evidence other than a positive NIK test, individuals suspected of possessing illegal drugs are not immediately charged. Instead, law enforcement officers confiscate suspicious substances and the GBI tests them. When and if the results are positive, only then do the police formally charge the alleged offenders.
Law enforcement officers already have a challenging job. It becomes much harder when they are asked to rely on faulty tools, which undercut the community’s trust in their work. Of course, no analysis will be 100 percent accurate, but government officials should certainly aim to do better than the NARK II.
As a matter of design, the test is seriously flawed. It provides too many false positives and permits the fallible human element to influence, or at least misinterpret, results. Police are not perfect, nor should they be expected to be. They do their best to fulfill their duties professionally and in highly stressful environments, and they should at least be provided better tools and policies to properly do their job.
One way or another, the NIK issue needs to be resolved. Police deserve a field test that helps them better accomplish their duties, and innocent Georgians should not pay the price for an unreliable NARK.
Marc Hyden is the Southeast region director for the R Street Institute, and he is a longtime Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.