Alexander J. Bernstein spent 29 days in jail and lost everything because Pennsylvania state police could not tell the difference between homemade soap and cocaine.
His friend, Anadel Cruz, had placed two large bars of homemade soap in the trunk of a rental car, and Bernstein was driving through the state when police pulled him over on Interstate 78 near Allentown for driving five miles over the speed limit – 60 mph in a 55 mph zone.
Troopers searched the vehicle, found the soap and decided it looked like cocaine, according to The Allentown Morning.
The two were driving from New York to Florida to visit Cruz’s sister, and he told the police that the soap – wrapped in clear plastic – was not drugs. Bernstein and Cruz were taken to a state police barracks, where, incredibly, a drug test falsely identified the soap as cocaine. Bernstein was charged with drug trafficking and held in the Leigh County Prison on $500,000 bail for 29 days. During that time, he lost his job, apartment and possessions, the newspaper reported.
If that was not bad enough, Bernstein also missed spending Thanksgiving with his 17-month-old son. A lawsuit claims the man was left homeless and destitute.
The real reason the vehicle was pulled over was that it was a luxury car, a Mercedes Benz, with out-of-state license plates driven by a Hispanic woman (Cruz), attorney Josua Karoly told The Allentown Morning Call. Karoly represented Bernstein in a suit against the state.
“If it was me driving that car, this wouldn’t have happened,” Karoly said.
The charges were dismissed after a lab test verified that the substance was indeed soap. Disturbingly, Bernstein still had to pay $32,000 in bail and court costs even though he was innocent, a lawsuit charges.
“[Bernstein] did not so much as receive an apology from the defendants,” his attorney, Joshua Karoly, wrote in the suit.
“And even then, the FBI, the internet and other media sources will still contain a permanent record of his arrest and the criminal charges upon which he was maliciously prosecuted,” Bernstein’s lawsuit charges.
In the end, it cost Pennsylvania’s taxpayers $195,000 to settle his federal lawsuit against the state, The Morning Call reported.
Bernstein may not be alone; thousands of innocent people might be in jail or prison because of faulty drug tests, Pro Publica charged. The tests are often used as evidence against suspects, even though they can be wrong. Around 33 percent of field tests examined by authorities in Las Vegas were wrong, Pro Publica reported. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement lab discovered that 21 percent of the substances police identified as methamphetamines using the tests were not meth.
Pro Publica said more than 100,000 people each year plead guilty to drug possession based on field tests.
“Police officers aren’t chemists,” former Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland told ProPublica. “We shouldn’t be doing field tests on the hood of patrol cars.”
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