Traffic stops on New Year’s Eve may be a good way of deterring drunk driving, but a pair of Georgia deputies got both less and much more than they expected when they pulled over one woman on New Year’s Eve 2016. The deputies initially claimed that they pulled the woman over because her windows were too dark (they later admitted that this wasn’t true). Once they got a look inside the car, they spotted a large plastic bag filled with a blue substance open on the floor next to the driver. The woman protested, but the deputies conducted a quick field test and determined that the substance was meth. The woman was charged with trafficking and thrown in jail on a $1 million bond (which she was unable to pay). Three months later, with the suspected meth trafficker still in jail, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation tested the mysterious substance.
It was cotton candy.
The driver, Dasha Fincher, was finally released from jail a month after the test exonerated her. In November 2018, Fincher filed a lawsuit alleging violation of her civil rights in federal court. Fincher isn’t alone in her plight: a Maryland woman tested positive for opiates and was denied contact with her newborn infant after she ate a poppy seed bagel, and a Kansas man was incarcerated for more than three weeks when packages of detergent, baking soda, and other common household substances that he had in his car tested positive for cocaine in a field test.
Field tests of the type used on Fincher’s cotton candy are relatively common; unfortunately, false positives are relatively common, too. Some tests are unreliable because the chemical reaction that is supposed to indicate the presence of a drug occurs when the test encounters other, legal substances. (For example, the antidepressant Effexor can lead to a false-positive test for PCP, and Wellbutrin can be mistaken for amphetamines.) Other tests can be affected by heat, cold, or lighting. Human error – misunderstanding how to administer a test or how to interpret the results – also can lead to false positives.
So, what should you do if a police officer wants to search your car? Sometimes, there’s not much you can do. In Fincher’s case, the deputies were able to test the cotton candy because it was in plain view when they pulled her over. Police officers can seize an object that they observe directly if they believe that object is connected with criminal activity. However, if a police officer asks to search your car, you have a right to refuse. The Kansas man who was wrongly arrested for cocaine possession consented to a search by the police because he said he had nothing to hide. Even if you’re a careful driver, be aware that field tests (and human officers) aren’t infallible: that sugary treat next to you or the prescription pills in your pocket could lead to incarceration. Don’t be afraid to calmly and politely assert your rights.
Kathleen Davies is a Staff Writer for GetLegal.com. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and has practiced law and taught legal writing and advocacy.