Tell me if this sounds like justice.
Karlos Cashe was stopped for driving his car without his headlights on in Oviedo, a city in Seminole County, at about 9:30 one night in March.
The officer ran the 57-year-old man’s name through a police teletype system and it came back that Cashe was a drug offender on probation who had an 8 p.m. curfew. Cashe tried to explain that the police computer was wrong. His curfew started at 10 p.m., not 8 p.m., he said.
But the information entered into the department’s computer won that argument. And Cashe was put in handcuffs and advised he was under arrest for violating his curfew.
Then came the search of his vehicle, prompted by a police K-9 that signaled the presence of drugs, according to the police report.
“I found a small piece of suspected cannabis in the center console and several small pieces of suspected cocaine base (crack) on the driver seat and the floor under it,” the arrest report said.
It seemed like a simple case, right? Guy on probation for possession of small amounts of both cocaine and marijuana is stopped, and officers say they found small amounts of cocaine and marijuana in his car.
Next step, the “crack cocaine” was put into an ODV NarcoPouch cocaine reagent kit, an instant drug test that sells for $2.35 per kit.
And it comes back positive for cocaine.
Cashe disputed this, as he did his curfew. He explained that he is a handyman who was doing drywall. And that white powder the officer found in his car was drywall residue, not cocaine.
He didn’t win that argument either.
Instead, he was loaded up with charges. He still owed $437 of the $633 he was ordered to pay in court costs from his previous drug arrest in December 2015. And he still had 30 of the 50 hours of community service to do on that case too. So this new trouble made things worse.
He was locked up for multiple counts of violating his probation and a new drug charge. The Seminole County State Attorney didn’t bother charging him with marijuana possession, opting instead to charge him with the cocaine possession because it was a felony and the marijuana was just a misdemeanor.
Cashe, unable to post bond, sat in jail. For three months.
He was arrested on March 22. And he’d probably still be in jail today, but the Florida Department of Law Enforcement lab finally got around to examining that “crack cocaine” collected from Cashe’s car in late May.
“No controlled substances” were found, the FDLE’s May 31st report said.
So it was drywall dust, after all. Just like Cashe had said. Oh, and in other important details, remember that curfew violation? Yeah, it turns out the police computer hadn’t been updated, and Cashe was telling the truth about that too. His curfew really was 10 p.m.
There was no reason to arrest him in the first place. This was a traffic stop that should have ended in a gentle reminder to put on his headlights, or at most, a ticket for a moving violation.
But don’t be looking for any apologies here.
“There was no issue with turnaround time in this case,” wrote FDLE spokesperson Jessica Cary.
She’s right. The FDLE usually takes about a month to verify a roadside drug test. In this case, the sample was received on May 16 and the test was done by the end of the month, a relatively short turnaround time.
But that doesn’t explain the 55 days between Cashe’s arrest on March 22 and the time the FDLE received the drug test.
“That would be a question for the Oviedo Police Department,” Cary said.
And Oviedo doesn’t see a problem either.
“We get told what to do by the state attorney’s office. Once we get told, we send it,” said Lt. Heather Capetillo. “If we sent everything to FDLE, they would be inundated.”
It’s not a system built to help poor people sitting in jail on a bogus charge. In fact, it causes them to make plea bargains, copping to crimes they sometimes didn’t commit, just to get out of jail, according to an investigation done by ProPublica.
The investigative journalism organization looked at 300 drug cases in Houston, where defendants were wrongly arrested and convicted due to false-positive reading on roadside drug tests, which have been shown to confuse dozens of household products with illegal narcotics. In 57 percent of those cases, the jailed and innocent defendants pleaded guilty to drug possession within the first eight days they were jailed, the investigation found.
Even after the cocaine test came back negative in this case, Cashe wasn’t released from jail. No, he still had to spend a couple more weeks behind bars, while prosecutors tidied up their case by getting a plea from him for violating his probation for that “small piece of suspected cannabis,” which was never tested by the FDLE lab, and for not paying all his court costs from the previous arrest.
I guess it’s easier to do that than apologize for this load of heavy-handed grief.
Don’t think it’s heavy-handed? Compare what happened to Cashe to the way the criminal justice system treated former Florida Congressman Trey Radel, who was caught making a $250 buy of cocaine in an undercover sting on Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C.
Radel didn’t spend time in jail of face a felony charge. Instead, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and got a book deal.
Lt. Capetillo of the Oviedo Police Department said this is the first time in her 20 years in the department that a roadside drug test turned out to be unreliable.
“They’re done all the time,” she said.
But John Kelly, a Washington, D.C.-based researcher who wrote a book about the inaccuracies of drug testing, said roadside tests are notoriously unreliable.
“These field tests are used to send people to jail, and 97 percent of drug convictions are plea bargains based on these field tests,” Kelly said. “But the tests are just presumptive. They say it could possibly be this drug.”
But it could be a lot of other things too — including, now we know, drywall.