Drug-testing Device Awaits Its Day In Court


420 Staff
About the size of a large shoe box, the NTX 2000 looks like an innocuous metal box, but High Point police say it could eliminate the department's reliance on state labs for testing drugs.

That's if it holds up in court.

Because it's a new technology, it is not automatically admissible as evidence, said Howard Neumann, a Guilford County assistant district attorney.

The courts need to rule that the methodology is reliable before it can become an acceptable way to test drugs in the state, he said.

Neumann likened the process to the acceptance of DNA evidence in the courts. The first time DNA evidence was submitted, it was challenged, he said. But the science behind DNA has proven reliable and is now commonly used in court.

So far, the NTX 2000's results have not been challenged in court.

The device uses 3-D fluorescent technology to test for traces of heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine in less than five minutes, said Douglas Branch , marketing director for Nar-Test Technologies, the Morrisville company that sells the device.

Operating the NTX 2000 requires little training and no scientific background. The operator takes a drug sample and places it in the box for analysis.

The analysis appears as a detailed graph on an attached computer screen, according to NarTest's Web site.

Only a handful of North Carolina counties have submitted the results as evidence in court.

All of those cases have been settled through plea agreements, he said.

Branch and his company are waiting for the results to be challenged.

The company has spent the past two-and-a-half years collecting data to prove its accuracy.

NarTest has loaned the device to several law enforcement agencies across the state, but only two -- the High Point Police Department and the Iredell County Sheriff's Office -- have purchased one.

What led High Point to spend $30,000 in grant money to buy a legally untested device?

In the past, High Point sent confiscated drugs to the State Bureau of Investigation's lab in Raleigh for testing.

"Our turnaround time with drug cases in Raleigh was about 14 months," said Jane Aswell, a police evidence technician in High Point. "And we just kept getting cases backed up and backed up. We had officers losing cases."

About two years ago, police Chief Jim Feely said he met with then-Greensboro police Chief David Wray and SBI Director Robin Pendergraft to discuss delays at the SBI's main lab.

"She told us that they were inundated with drug cases from all over the state, especially drug cases that may not even go to trial," Feely said. "And we began talking and said, 'Well, what if we could relieve you of some of that load?'"

Feely said it was Wray who discovered the NarTest device.

Originally they had planned to purchase one to share, but Feely said he realized High Point's workload required it to have its own.

In November 2005, High Point conducted a b eta test, in which 60 drug samples that had been tested by the SBI lab were retested using the NTX 2000. The results matched those of the SBI lab, Aswell said.

In April 2006, NarTest loaned High Point a device until it found the money to pay for it.

Between April and December, Aswell said she ran 352 drug tests with the equipment.

The drugs were from ongoing investigations, and the results were submitted as evidence in court cases, Aswell said.

None of the cases has reached the trial phase, during which the results could be challenged.

Some charges have been dropped, while others ended in a plea agreement, she said.

The samples were also taken to NarTest's certified forensic lab, where its chemists verified the results using the SBI's drug test.

The results were verified in case they are challenged and not upheld in court, Aswell said.

In the past few years, the SBI has increased the staff at its labs, reducing the back log of drug and other testing.

High Point officials said they still think buying the NTX 2000 was a good move.

"These are things that we need to use to take some of the load off the SBI so they can focus on other things, as well," district attorney Neumann said.

Source: Greensboro News & Record (NC)
Copyright: 2007 Greensboro News & Record, Inc.
Contact: edpage@news-record.com
Website: greensboro.com
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