Drugs so dangerous agency ends on-site testing; prosecutors worry about impact on justice system
A new Missouri State Highway Patrol policy designed to protect its troopers could delay charges against alleged drug offenders.
Because of increased risks for exposure to fentanyl and other airborne or transdermal narcotics, the Highway Patrol has informed law enforcement agencies that it will no longer conduct field testing for illegal substances during police raids and traffic stops. The policy change went into effect at the end of 2017.
“In order to protect our Troopers from the potential lethal risks associated with exposure to fentanyl and fentanyl-related components, the Patrol is no longer performing field tests,” said Highway Patrol Capt. John Hotz, Director of the Patrol's Public Information and Education Division. “The Patrol has put protocols in place for limited rapid testing in a laboratory setting when necessary for prosecution or continuation of an investigation. The Patrol continues to evaluate the tasks we perform to protect our troopers as well as maintaining public safety.”
Field testing provides prosecuting attorneys with evidence that suspect substances seized by police ― such as methamphetamine, marijuana and heroin ― are indeed illegal. This testing allows prosecutors to establish probable cause to file charges. Without quick testing, substances must be sent to a state lab, which means prosecutors can not file charges until they get the results.
Without the initial tests, establishing probable cause for an arrest could be delayed and result in charges not being filed for months.
Prosecutors have traditionally relied on field drug testing at the onset of a criminal case. Normally, once officers arrest someone on suspicion of felony possession of a controlled substance, the state is required to file charges within 24 hours and the judge sets a bond and bond conditions. Alleged offenders must post bond or remain in jail until at least a preliminary hearing.
Without a field drug test, prosecutors will not have immediate probable cause. To file charges, prosecutors do not need to prove their cases; rather they must show a judge there is enough evidence to sustain the charges.
For an actual trial, the state will have a lab test result that's been administered by a criminalist at the Highway Patrol, which often takes several months to obtain. If a case goes to trial, the specialists from the Highway Patrol lab often testify.
Although field tests help establish probable cause quickly, all substances are still sent to a state lab for testing.
In the past, Highway Patrol troopers would conduct on-site tests in which the officers would have to handle a suspect substance for an extended period of time. For example, a suspect powder could be dipped into a liquid to test for methamphetamine. If the liquid turned a particular color when in contact with the powder, that would indicate a positive test for meth.
Now troopers, using masks and gloves, safely secure a substance and immediately store it away to be sent to a lab.
Particularly dangerous is fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid used to treat severe pain, such as that experienced by cancer patients. It is often administered via a patch.
What concerns law enforcement is the illegally-obtained raw fentanyl powder that frequently comes from labs in Mexico. It is often sold as heroin but with far more danger to drug abusers, or it is mixed – called cut – with heroin to make for a more powerful high.
Just coming into contact with the raw powder is dangerous. There have been several reports around the nation of officers needing doses of Narcan, a drug overdose inhibitor, after being exposed to fentanyl.
EMTs and other first responders have been trained that fentanyl is a sign that times have changed, and safety is vital for the ability to provide quality care.
"Fentanyl is not only dangerous for the drug’s users, but for law enforcement, public health workers and first responders who could unknowingly come into contact with it in its different forms,” the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration warned in a 2015 notice. “Fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin or accidental inhalation of airborne powder can also occur. DEA is concerned about law enforcement coming in contact with fentanyl on the streets during the course of enforcement, such as a buy-walk, or buy-bust operation. Just touching fentanyl or accidentally inhaling the substance during enforcement activity or field testing the substance can result in absorption through the skin and that is one of the biggest dangers with fentanyl. The onset of adverse health effects, such as disorientation, coughing, sedation, respiratory distress or cardiac arrest is very rapid and profound, usually occurring within minutes of exposure. Canine units are particularly at risk of immediate death from inhaling fentanyl."