Georgia Southern starting QB Shai Werts was charged on July 31 for misdemeanor cocaine possession after cops in Saluda County, South Carolina pulled him over for speeding and then tested a white substance on the hood of his car. If you’re wondering why anyone would have cocaine on the hood of their car, well, they wouldn’t. Werts said at the time it was bird poop, and on Thursday, he was proven right. The charge against him has been dropped by prosecutors, after law enforcement tests on the collected samples returned no controlled substance.
At the time the news of Werts’s charge first broke, officers said they had tested the white substance with two field kits. From the original police report:
″(Werts) was asked about the white powder on the hood of his vehicle,” states the report. “Reporting officers field tested the white powder substance on the hood with a cocaine kit and it did test positive with two kits in two different places of the hood of the car. (Werts) stated it was bird poop and that he had attempted to clean it up on Monday at a car wash in Newberry (South Carolina).”
Werts is lucky that the truth has come out, and he’s since seen his suspension by the university lifted, but his experience is unfortunately one of many. False positives in drug field tests are a disturbingly common result. The Washington Post, in an article from 2018, notes that they’ve been keeping track of these false positives, and plenty of random items have inexplicably tested as drugs:
That list includes sage, chocolate chip cookies, motor oil, spearmint, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, tortilla dough, deodorant, billiards chalk, patchouli, flour, eucalyptus, breath mints, Jolly Ranchers, Krispy Kreme donut glaze, exposure to air and loose-leaf tea. The latter item triggered a SWAT raid on an innocent couple and their two children.
Error rates on these tests are estimated to be somewhere between 1 in 5 and 1 in 3, but according to a 2015 study of drug cases in Las Vegas by ProPublica, thousands of people were convicted based on field-test results. Even if, like Werts, the preliminary test is proven to be false, a person who can’t afford bail could spend a long time in jail for a faulty kit before being cleared.
Werts’s attorney, Townes Jones IV, told the Savannah Morning-News that his client was “happy to hear the news” but “confident that’s what would ultimately happen.” Maybe his experience will be prominent enough to change the way these tests are used.