Gale Griffin uses so much baking soda that she buys it in bulk. She never dreamed that her thriftiness would help land her in jail.
According to KUTV News, Griffin and Wendall Harvey, her husband, work as truckers hauling explosives for the military. It’s a sensitive job that requires a security clearance and a clean record.
Being on the road makes it inconvenient to carry a Costco-sized tub of baking soda, so Griffin, who says she uses baking soda, “for everything,” stores it in plastic bags when they travel.
She came to regret that habit during a routine inspection outside the gates of Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Police found several of Griffin’s baggies of baking soda in the couple’s trailer and thought they’d caught a pair of drug traffickers.
Harvey, a former police officer, tried to explain. As he tells KATV News:
“I saw the guy hand out a bag of baking soda outside the drivers door, and I told him, ‘That’s just baking soda,’ and I think that’s when it started.”
Unwilling to take Harvey’s word for it, the Fort Chaffee police called in another department to help test the baggies. To the couple’s astonishment, the baking soda tested positive for cocaine. And not once, but multiple times. Fort Chaffee Police Chief Chuck Bowen tells KATV:
“We tested it three different times out of two different kits to make sure that we weren’t having any issue, and each time we got a positive for controlled substance.”
Even though he knew that they weren’t carrying drugs, Harvey didn’t dispute the results. Instead, he wondered how cocaine could have gotten into their baking soda, telling KATV:
“You don’t even doubt the tests because I guess I’m stupid, I’m just a citizen and it never occurred to me that the tests were invalid.”
Police charged the couple with transporting approximately $300,0000 worth of cocaine. Griffin remembers being too stunned to react, telling KUTV:
“I told him, ‘I’ve never had two nickels to rub together, are you crazy?’ Then [the police officer] said, ‘I’ve never had two nickels to rub together either, but now I’m the owner of your truck.'”
What the couple didn’t know was that the testing kit used by the police that day was a $2 Narcotics Identification Kit (called the NIK test) that is notorious for false positives.
Though the NIK test is used by law enforcement agencies nationwide, its error rate is significant. According to KATV, the test has returned false positives for candy, tortilla flour, and vitamins. In one study from Florida’s Law Enforcement Lab Systems, the NIK test returned a false positive 21% of the time for substances that were negative for drugs in a crime lab test.
A reporter from KUTV, after hearing Griffin’s story, bought a NIK test online and tried it on common household items like chocolate and aspirin. He says he received false positives for illegal substances on four of the ten items he tested.
Chief Bowen acknowledged the flaws in their testing system, but said that it was unlikely they would stop using the NIK test. He told KATV:
“We’re not chemists, and we don’t roll with a chemistry set in the back of a police car. It’s one of the best ones on the market that we can find, so it will have to be the one that we will stay with.”
That’s not very comforting to Griffin and Harvey, who spent nearly a month in an Arkansas jail before being assigned an attorney. It took a few more weeks (and a plea to the judge) before the state crime lab tested the baggies and confirmed that they were baking soda.
Even after the couple was released, it took months to get their truck back. Harvey says they are still jobless and are trying to get their security clearance reinstated.
Griffin, who says that being in jail had her believing she’d, “died and gone to hell,” worries that what happened to her could happen to other innocent people. Harvey agrees, telling KATV that he and his wife can’t be the only ones imprisoned for a false positive:
“Two law-abiding working people, and there’s no telling how many mistakes they’ve made. It’s a mistake, but these mistakes happen quite often I think.”