Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

In the past week or so, the story of the woman who was held in jail for three months after Monroe County deputies mistook cotton candy in her vehicle for methamphetamines has been all over the news.  This story provides valuable insight into the Georgia criminal justice system and the importance of retaining counsel in drug cases and other criminal matters.

On December 31, 2016, Monroe County deputies stopped the vehicle in which Dasha Fincher was riding allegedly due to tinted windows. They discovered cotton candy on the floorboards of her vehicle. They conducted a roadside test using a $2 test called the NARK II, which apparently indicated that the substance was meth. Fincher was arrested, charged with trafficking of methamphetamines and with possession with intent to distribute. These are both felony offenses, and bond was set at one million dollars. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fincher was unable to make bond, and she sat in the Monroe County Jail for three months. A lab test finally returned in March 2017 indicating that the substance was not, in fact, meth, but Fincher was apparently not released from jail until the following month. While she was in jail, Fincher missed the birth of her grandsons.

So what can this case teach us about the criminal justice system as a whole?

  1. In Georgia, it is simply a fact that lab tests take a long time. They are usually done by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s (GBI) crime lab, and they are notoriously slow at returning results of drug tests. This means that many drug cases take much longer than they should.
  2. Law enforcement agencies – not just in Georgia but all over the country – routinely rely on tests and/or methods that do not produce reliable results. According to the Marshall Project, there have been cases where the NARK II has mistaken sage for marijuana, breath mints for crack, motor oil for heroin, and jolly ranchers for meth.
  3. Innocent people do get wrapped up in the criminal justice system. Many people in and out of the justice system believe that if a person is arrested, he or she must have done something wrong. In fact, law enforcement officers frequently arrest innocent people. Sometimes, these arrests are malicious. For example, in Florida, police were instructed by their superiors to maintain a perfect clearance record by framing innocent black people. More frequently, though, wrongful arrests are the result of careless police work or reliance on unreliable tests.
  4. Even if the State declines to pursue charges or dismisses a case against a person, that person has still been harmed by their involvement in the system. It is never “no harm, no foul.” That person has missed invaluable family time. Many people lose their jobs and suffer serious emotional and financial harm due to being arrested. Mug shots are often published online. Reputations may be tarnished.
  5. Having an attorney in any criminal matter is crucial. Attorneys can fight for bond reductions, which may allow defendants like Ms. Fincher to be released pending further court proceedings. They also point out the flaws in the State’s case, first to the State itself (the prosecutor) and, later, to a jury. A good defense attorney understands the tests on which the State is basing its case and can effectively point out when these tests are not scientifically sound.

In sum, flawed policing tactics result in many individuals being treated as guilty until they are proven innocent. This happens not just in drug cases, but also in DUI cases and many other types of cases. The best remedy is to have a criminal defense lawyer on your side. If you or someone you care about has been arrested in Georgia, give me a call today.

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