Meth Gun and 'Good Enough for Probable Cause'

Kiran Chetry interviewed a Sheriff’s Deputy on CNN’s American Morning news program about the new methamphetamine detection ‘gun’ being tested in Arizona and Missouri.

First citing the National Association of Counties survey that found meth the ‘number one drug problem,’ Chetry defines the device as “[helping] police detect trace amounts of meth on any surface including skin,” and asks her guest about any legal issues that might be raised.

His response:

I hear the Fourth Amendment issues come up on several occasions and, you know, we’re here to protect or defend that constitutional right and so we’re here to use this device to determine if something is methamphetamine or not.

So, the right to be secure in your person (house, papers or effects) from unreasonable search and seizure is basically, well, the same as the ‘right’ of the police to determine if you have trace amounts of methamphetamine on you?

And what about trace amounts? Any way you could get trace amounts of methamphetamine on you and not be a dealer/user? Chetry continued:

…one of the other concerns… because this can test for a microgram of meth, how do you insure that innocent people wouldn’t get in trouble for inadvertently touching something that someone else touched, or hugging a person who had traces of meth?

No problem replies the Sheriff. In Arizona, the possession of controlled substance statute requires that a person have a ‘usable amount’ of meth. Well, there’s no such requirement in Texas. For marijuana, yes; for all other controlled substances, no (which is a separate problem in and of itself).

The Sheriff continued:

…if we determine that there’s a trace amount, we’re going to [go on] to determine

  • How did you get that?
  • Why do you have a trace amount on your clothes or person?

Well, let’s see here. Everyone will say “I have no idea”. Since we know that drug dealers/drug users will deny knowing where it comes from, that won’t be a very good excuse now will it? If you actually have no idea where it came from, better not get caught using the same excuse as all those junkies.

I found the part of the segment interesting. Chetry interrupts and rephrases the Sheriff’s last response to say that it’s ‘good enough then for probable cause’. But he actually says:

It wouldn’t be probable cause in itself… until the courts determine that the science and technology behind it is good quality science.

An admission from police that the gizmo isn’t ‘enough for probable cause,’ and that we don’t know the quality of the science… but, of course, they’re using it anyway.

Also see, from Jonathan Turley:

The concern is not meth users but the creation of a fishbowl society where the government constantly scans and surveils its citizens. It presents a world not contemplated when the fourth amendment was written and a world quite different in terms of the feeling of freedom in public. Notably, as surveillance cameras increase and scanning devices proliferate, there is little discussion of the shrinking zone of personal privacy.

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Comments (8) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
T F Stern - November 10, 2007 9:41 PM

You brought out some excellent issues as you pin pointed something which many in law enforcement tend to overlook; that mechanical devices cannot and should not stand alone when determining any violation of law, key words are stand alone. In the case of a methamphetamine analysis device to determine probable cause I would hope that regardless of which state; Arizona, Texas or any other, that a requirement be affixed to such a probable cause hearing along the lines that critical elements of the crime were observed by the officer or witness (s) and that the mechanical device was there to verify that observation rather than such a case relying on just the device.

I'm a retired police officer and a good portion of my time was associated with traffic violations rather than the more serious crimes; however, the level of proof required remains the same, observations first and then the use of mechanical devices. I didn't like the use of a radar gun to do the observing part first and then verify the findings later; that being the reverse of how it was supposed to be done. That comes as close to the issue of the use of the meth-gun you brought out in this article; without some other elements which would indicate a crime had been committed I'd have say no to probable cause and shut the door. Thanks for bringing up a "reasonable doubt".

Long Beach Criminal Defense Attorney - November 12, 2007 7:22 PM

I have a real problem with the accuracy of such a device. For example who will be resposible for its certificaion, what about Kelly-Frye issues?

Mark - December 9, 2007 10:13 PM

The "usable amount" of meth is a standard that ought to be applied in Texas by law. I represent a guy who was found to have .02 or two-one-hundreths of a gram of the controlled substance and he is facing felony prosecution.

Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer - February 9, 2008 9:48 AM

I agree, a national standard should be adopted to give adequate notice regarding what the illegal level will be. In too many cases are there horror stories about people being convicted with low levels that should not be illegal.

Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer - September 23, 2008 6:55 PM

I would definitely have to agree with TF. There certainly needs to be more to establish probable cause. A good example of this would be the use of a PAS machine in DUI cases. The results of the test, coupled with the symptomology, driving observations, and officer's experience provides the PC, not just a machine result.

j c - May 19, 2010 11:12 PM

define useable amount. bullshit , why dont they put this much effort into something that kills more people every year , and is 100% legal, i'm talking about alcohol,the legal drug.

j c - May 19, 2010 11:12 PM

define useable amount. bullshit , why dont they put this much effort into something that kills more people every year , and is 100% legal, i'm talking about alcohol,the legal drug.

j c - May 19, 2010 11:13 PM

define useable amount. bullshit , why dont they put this much effort into something that kills more people every year , and is 100% legal, i'm talking about alcohol,the legal drug.

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