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The Power of Science

Science.

What does this word bring to your mind?  Maybe you think of test tubes and lab coats.  Maybe you imagine Albert Einstein and other brilliant, if eccentric individuals.  You see the double-helix from DNA, electrons clouding around a nucleus, microscopes showing organisms that are otherwise an invisible mystery.

Amy Albritton’s life was dismantled by “science” despite what she knew: she did not have drugs in her car.  But the officer waved a scientific tube in front of her face after the color had changed when he added the white crumb from the floorboard of her car, and an attorney repeated to her that the test proved she had cocaine.  Amy was terrified of spending two years in prison.  She pleaded guilty to a felony deal with a 45 day sentence.  But she lost her job.  Lost her home.  Nearly lost her son.

That little tube filled with color-changing liquid is a cost-effective field test for illegal substances used by police all across the nation.  Add the mystery bit, and if the color turns, there is probable cause to arrest the individual for drug possession.  In Arizona, possession of an illegal substance is a felony in the world of criminal law, and a judge can keep you in custody until you pay a bond, plead guilty, or have a trial.  Don’t want to plead guilty?  Now you have to wait for months while another test is conducted, hire a lawyer, and potentially face a much harsher sentence, even if you did not commit a crime!  But despite more than forty years of warnings that these field tests are preliminary, at best—and have an extensive false positive record—courts across the nation, including those in Arizona, allow these field test results to provide the groundwork for a guilty plea.

Four years after pleading guilty, Amy got a letter advising her that the white crumb was tested in a laboratory using a more reliable and thorough method.  The substance was not illegal.  She could pursue action to take the conviction off of her record.  Sure, the letter provided some personal vindication by proving she was not crazy or lying, but how could she get those four years back?

For those charged with a criminal offense, this sort of scenario happens far more often than one would think.

Our criminal justice system faces a huge hurdle: the “CSI Effect.”  This belief that science always tells the truth, that science will catch the bad guys, has led to a nation filled with jurors, judges, prosecutors, and yes, defense attorneys who have elevated science over everything else.  Is science a powerful tool?  Absolutely.  It is because of its power that we have to treat it with caution and respect.  Here in Arizona, this issue of “infallible science” must be addressed if you are facing a Scottsdale DUI, Phoenix DUI, felony possession violation, or almost any other charge involving testing.

More than twenty years ago, our nation’s Supreme Court warned against the use of “junk science,” opinions or methods that have a scientific aura about them but have not been accepted by the scientific community or were not based on appropriate research, materials, or facts.  Defense attorneys have the challenge of looking into all of this and questioning first, rather than accepting as true, the results that scientists have put forth.  In fact, the scientific method requires that the proponent of a scientific result has the burden to prove that the testing methods and the result can be trusted.  This includes fingerprints, ballistics, DNA, blood alcohol testing, and drug analysis—all of which are generally accepted but where much can still go awry if scientific principles are not strictly followed.

So are the tests used for Scottsdale DUI enforcement considered science?  Is their use by Phoenix drug enforcement officers science?  Based upon personal experience and examining widespread practices, the investigatory methods that police use on a daily basis fall well short of the rigorous criteria set forth by the scientific community.  But DUI attorneys—and the public—need to be aware of their many shortcomings, especially when there are so many ways that the tests can be misinterpreted due to poor lighting, insufficient training, and reactions with other, legal chemicals.  Here, in Maricopa County, educated citizens need to remember that each individual charged with a crime is innocent until proven guilty by appropriate methods and that lives and livelihoods hang in the balance, even after just an arrest.

Consult with an experienced DUI attorney to know how science may and may not be used against you in your case.