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Prosecutors in Portland Change Drug Conviction Policy

Maureen Meehan

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A guilty plea for drug possession will no longer stand in Oregon’s Multnomah County, which includes Portland, unless the test used by arresting officers has been confirmed in a lab.

For years, these pleas—whether actually guilty or made by people wanting to get out of jail at a preliminary hearing—were among the most routine proceedings in criminal court in Portland, Oregon.

Defendants would often serve time or end up in addiction treatment centers while the drug kit results that sent them there were never confirmed by a lab.

However, following the publication of an article called “Busted” by ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine, Portland’s DA Office decided to change the way it secured guilty pleas in drug possession cases and to stop sending people down the river based on bogus test kits.

Now, when a defendant pleads guilty before the lab analysis is performed, prosecutors still have the field test results double-checked.

“Our DDAs [deputy district attorneys] are always looking to make sure we’re using the very best practices,” said J.R. Ujifusa, the deputy district attorney in Portland who oversees drug prosecutions.

Drug field tests have been used for decades by police departments across the country. Officers drop suspicions material into a pouch of chemicals and look for changes in colors that might indicate the presence of illegal drugs. The tests were typically used to establish probable cause for an arrest. Courts across the country have routinely barred them from being used as evidence at trial, demanding results confirmed by certified labs.

According to the Innocence Project, at any given time there are an estimated 40,000 to 100,000 innocent people in U.S. prisons. This does not include the number of people locked up for non-violent drug possession.

Tens of thousands of people every year are sent to jail based on the results of a $2 roadside drug test. Widespread evidence shows that these tests routinely produce false positives, according to the New York Times.

In the case of Portland, prosecutors say they want to make sure they are not allowing innocent people to be saddled with wrongful convictions, said Ujifusa, according to ProPublica. He added that the office has mandated lab confirmation of field test results even after guilty pleas.

J. Russell Ratto, head of conviction integrity at the district attorney’s office, reviewed cases from 2009 to the present in which the Oregon State Police Forensic Laboratory determined suspected drugs were not drugs to see if any of those cases had resulted in drug possession convictions.

Ratto discovered five wrongful convictions based on inaccurate field test results. Ujifusa said the DA’s office has already had those convictions vacated.

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