Guilty Til Proven Innocent– and Even After!

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BurLAWcracy / Repairing the System

Amy Albritton learned the hard way that the American criminal justice system assumes that those charged with crime are guilty, at least until proven innocent, and sometimes even after. This article from the New York Times Magazine sets out Amy’s experience in detail. Amy, the divorced mother of two children, had a good job as the manager of an apartment complex in Monroe, Louisiana when she left with a new boyfriend on a get-away to the bright lights of Houston.

The nightmare began when her car was pulled over for changing lanes without signaling. The officer saw a “white crumb” on the floor of the car which he thought looked like crack cocaine. So he performed an on-the-spot drug test by placing the crumb in a vial of chemicals and noting the color change. He quickly determined it was cocaine and announced to Albritton, “You’re busted.”

This portable field test drug kit is commonly used by police all over the United States. Unfortunately, it is highly unreliable, routinely churning out large numbers of false positives, a fact the many arresting officers don’t know. Estimates are as high as one in three. That’s why the roadside tests are not admissible as evidence at trial in Texas or most other jurisdictions.

But they are good enough to be accepted as the basis for a guilty plea, and 99.5% of drug possession convictions in Houston are the products of plea bargains. Amy at first insisted on her innocence, but her court-appointed lawyer showed little interest. He advised Amy that her best course of action was to plead guilty to felony possession. The upside was that she would only spend a couple of weeks in jail instead of the two years she would serve if she went to trial and was convicted of felony possession. Albritton took the deal, served her term, and went back to Louisiana with a felony conviction on her record.

When she returned home she was immediately fired from her job for missing work; this resulted in also losing her apartment and her furniture. Then her newly acquired criminal record prevented her from finding another job as an apartment manager so she settled for a job as a clerk in convenience store.

Most jurisdictions never check whether the drug test that justifies accepting a drug possession plea is accurate. But, to its credit, Houston sends the evidence to a forensic lab to check whether it is really an illegal drug. When the lab tested the “white crumb” in Amy case, they found it was not cocaine or any other illegal drug. Most likely it was food debris. Amy had been wrongfully convicted

The lab emailed the District Attorney’s Office its conclusion, but nobody at the District Attorney’s Office remembers reading the email. Only when a reporter writing a story about drug convictions in Texas found to be based on inaccurate drug tests inquired if there were any such cases in Houston did the District Attorney contact the lab. The lab told them that there were 212 cases where the lab found the sample not to be an illegal substance, including Amy Albritton’s.

So long after her conviction, the District Attorney’s Office sent Amy Albritton a form letter informing her that she had been convicted on false evidence. Unfortunately, Amy never received the letter because it was sent to the address on Amy’s driver’s license when arrested, the apartment complex that had evicted her after the conviction. It was one of the authors of the New York Times story who read Amy’s file and tracked her down to give her the good news. Her immediate response was “I knew it. I told them.”

Amy’s experience is not unique to Houston. Nationally the situation is no better; probably it is even worse. The authors of the NYT article estimate that at least 100,000 people a year plead guilty to drug charges that rely on the same type portable drug test kit used in Albritton’s case. If one third of these tests are “false positives,” the American criminal legal system is inflicting injustice on a mass scale.

I don’t think that it’s sufficient to just feel sorry for the injustice caused Amy. We owe it to Amy and ourselves to understand how so many apparently innocent errors led to this sad result. Let’s review the facts. The officer who conducted the roadside drug test seemed to think it was state of the art science. The court-appointed attorney thought it cancelled out the value of Amy’s declaration of innocence, and the judge who accepted her plea never mentioned that Amy could move for a continuance until the “white crumb” had been tested in a professional lab.

It gets even weirder. The police lab that discovered the test was inaccurate in Amy’s case sent over 200 emails to the District Attorney’s office notifying them of convictions that were based on false evidence, but never checked up on what action had been taken. In turn, the Houston District Attorney’s office apparently does not read its emails, at least those that inform them they have convicted an innocent person. When finally notified of the injustice visited on Amy, the District Attorney sent her a form letter to an address it knew might be obsolete. That letter makes no apology to Amy for the mistake in Amy’s case or mention any action it will take to see that injustice rectified. It’s Amy’s problem what to do.

And yet Houston appears one of the more progressive jurisdictions in the country in criminal justice matters. What conclusion should we draw from this strange tale of incompetence? Here is what I fear has happened. A silent bureaucratic revolution has transformed the American criminal justice system. The system used to be run on a “rule of law“ model; the primary tool was the jury trial and the reigning assumption was that those accused of crime were innocent until proven guilty. Remember the old maxim “better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer.”

But our national embrace of the “war on crime” has slowly transformed the system. The rule of law model still operates in some cases, like those of hedge fund tycoons and police officers charged with shooting minority suspects, but in the vast majority of cases it has been replaced by a robotic burLAWcracy more interested in generating large numbers of convictions than getting the right result in each case. Now the primary tool for resolving cases is the “voluntary” guilty plea aided by high bail fees and the threat of draconian sentences for those who dare demand a trial. Innocent defendants like Amy feel they cannot afford to ask for a trial. Cases like Amy’s are seen as acceptable “collateral damage” in the larger war effort.

And the innocent victims are the most vulnerable; in Houston almost 60% of the “bad” guilty pleas for drug offenses involved African American defendants, although African Americans only make up a little over 20% of the population. Amy is white, but her car had an out-of-state license plate. I have to wonder if Texas plates might have protected her from being pulled over for changing lanes without signaling, and the ordeal that followed.

You might ask what happened to the old “better that ten guilty persons escape” philosophy. I think it’s been the victim of death by willful ignorance. Houston authorities must have known of the weakness of the portable drug test kit; otherwise they wouldn’t have sent results to a professional lab to be checked for accuracy. But no one spoke of the test’s weaknesses, read unwelcome emails, or checked up on whether errors discovered had been remedied. The system just kept rolling out more guilty pleas.

Some people will call burLAWcracy a modern innovation in pragmatic problem-solving. But I like the ring of the phrase “with liberty and justice for all.” The criminal justice system should work at least as hard at protecting the innocent as it does punishing the guilty.

“Fight BurLAWcracy!”

Let me know what you think.


  1. Rhonda Magee says

    Our criminal justice system has simply lost its way, fast becoming a criminal injustice system. It’s role in furthering impoverishing those already at the bottom — through endless fines and fees — cannot be understated. And this story reveals another dimension of a system of which we as Americans really should at this point be ashamed. (I personally don’t think guile is the answer, by the way. I think we simply need a new system, and people with integrity to serve it.) Thanks for writing about it, John.


  2. Wendy LaRiviere says

    I heard just today that Bill Clinton ran on a platform of correcting the excesses of his own Crime Reform Bill when he ran for his second term of office. I don’t think that promise ever amounted to much, but it does suggest the insincerity of the War on Drugs, the War on Crime, Mass Incarceration, the Stop-and-Frisk policy and oh so many other stratagems of the political class looking to win votes from the citizenry. Equally tragically, the voters seem to have been ignorant, racist and anti-working class in their concept that the disciplinary state is necessarily a public good. Law-and-order politicians have been blowing smoke in our eyes for many, many years. Amy Albritton is an example of the damage done by such opportunism.


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