Pubdate: Wed, 02 Jan 2019
Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)
Copyright: 2019 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Author: Joshua Sharpe


Dasha Fincher said she was borrowing a friend's car when she noticed a
half-eaten bag of blue cotton candy in the floorboard. It was the kind
kids like to buy from gas stations near her Macon home. She thought
little of it until a few minutes later when it became the biggest
problem in her life.

On New Year's Eve 2016, Monroe County deputies pulled the car over for
a suspected window-tint violation and spotted the bag. They used a
quick roadside test kit on the blue stuff and got a positive result
for methamphetamine. Fincher ended up charged with trafficking meth
and held in jail for three months on a breathtaking $1 million cash
bond before a lab test found the "meth" was really just cotton candy,
according to a lawsuit.

Fincher, 41, filed a lawsuit last month against Monroe County
commissioners, the deputies and the manufacturer of the roadside test
kits. Her suit, which asks for a jury to determine how much she is
owed, says the county should have known that the kits can give
incorrect results. The manufacturer's instructions warn that test
results should be confirmed by a lab.

"They are not a scientific-level test," said veteran drug cop, Phil
Price, who is head of the Cherokee County Multi-Agency Narcotics
Squad. "Our policy is we would not use that as the sole evidence for
an arrest."

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which does lab tests for police
around the state, couldn't provide statistics on exactly how often the
tests, the Nark II roadside analysis kits, malfunction. Even the
manufacturer, Sirchie Acquisition Company of Youngsville, N.C.,
couldn't give an accuracy rate.

Many factors, including cold temperatures and officer training, can
contribute to incorrect results, according to an expansive 2016
ProPublica-New York Times report. The investigation found the roadside
tests, combined with poor training, had contributed to 15 false
accusations of drug possession in a span of seven months in
Hillsborough County, Fla.

When a kit fails, people can end up jailed until they post bond or a
lab test contradicts the kit's results. In some cases, ProPublica and
the Times reported, people simply plead guilty to end the ordeal.

Test maker Sirchie and the Monroe County attorney, Ben Vaughn, didn't
respond to requests for comment on Fincher's suit, filed in Middle
Georgia U.S. District Court. John Cary Bittick, who left his post as
Monroe sheriff this year to accept an appointment by President Donald
Trump as Middle Georgia's U.S. Marshal, declined to comment. Current
Monroe Sheriff Brad Freeman said he could't speak on pending
litigation, but he did signal plans to investigate the kits, which are
still being used by Monroe deputies.

"Anytime a product or something like that fails," Freeman said, "you
certainly need to look into it."

But the case also raises other questions: Why was Fincher, who
struggles financially, given a $1 million bond? Why was she indicted
before the GBI's lab results were returned? Why did it take almost
three months for the lab results to exonerate her? Why did it then
take another 13 days for her to get out of jail?

"What happened in this case was a complete failure of the system in
every regard," said Stephen Bright, a Georgia State University
professor who spent nearly 25 years as director of Southern Center for
Human Rights in Atlanta. "To take three months of anyone's liberty is
an extraordinary thing."

'Are you kidding me?'

Monroe deputies Cody Maples and Kevin Williams pulled over the old
grey Toyota Corolla on Ga. 19 near Forsyth around 3 p.m. Dec. 31.
Maples initially thought the window tint was too dark, he wrote in a

Then deputies discovered Fincher's boyfriend, David Morris Jr., who
isn't involved in the suit, was driving with a suspended license. They
asked the couple to consent to a search, which Fincher and Morris did.
Dashcam video provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by
Fincher's lawyer James Freeman shows one deputy pull a bag from the
floorboard that was transparent with a crusty blue mass inside.

Fincher told the lawmen it was cotton candy. Both deputies opened the
bag and sniffed.

The deputies brought out the Nark II roadside test kit, the suit said.
To use the kit, officers drop a suspected drug into a clear liquid,
and if the liquid turns purple it's a positive result for meth. If it
turns red, it's negative.

In this case, it turned purple.

Fincher grew concerned. "Are you kidding me?" she recalls saying.

The options

There on the roadside, things could've gone differently. Because the
tests are known to fail, the deputies could've confiscated the
suspected drugs, let the couple go and arrested them later if a lab
test confirmed the reading, said Marietta attorney Ashleigh Merchant,
who isn't involved in the case. Or, she added, the suspects could have
been given a lower bond they could pay.

Price, the Cherokee County narcotics squad commander, said the tests
are best used as an indicator, not evidence.

But Monroe deputies relied on the findings of the roadside test and
clicked on the cuffs.

Fincher and her boyfriend had both been convicted of drug charges more
than a decade ago, which lawyers said the deputies could have seen
when they ran their names, though it's not clear if they did. For
Morris, it was possession of meth and a subsequent escape. For
Fincher, it was having marijuana growing in her bedroom. She pleaded
guilty under the First Offender Act, did two years on probation and
the charge is no longer on her record, according to the Jones County
Clerk of Superior Court's Office.

Tommy Wilson, the chief Superior Court judge for the Towaliga Judicial
Circuit, gave both suspects a $1 million cash bond, meaning they'd
have to put up the full amount to get out. The judge didn't respond to
a request for comment.

Fincher's bond, which was far higher than some murder suspects get in
Georgia, was plainly "excessive," said Bright.

Another curious arrest

While Fincher was in jail, the mother of three longed for her family
and missed several milestones, including the birth of twin grandsons
and her daughter's miscarriage. Fincher kept calling her 18-month-old
granddaughter, fearful little Aniyah would forget her.

Fincher said she woke up every morning thinking today would be the day
everyone realized they'd made a grave error. But it kept getting worse.

She'd been looking forward to witnessing the birth of her twin
grandsons. Instead, her son had to bring the babies to the jail to
introduce her. It could've been a nice enough moment. But within
seconds, her son was also arrested, told he had a bench warrant,
according to the lawsuit.

Fincher was so frustrated she punched a wall, breaking her hand. She
said she was seen by a doctor, who recommended a full cast and
physical therapy. Her lawsuit alleges she never received treatment for
her hand.

The next day, Fincher's son, who isn't involved in her lawsuit, was
released and told his arrest had been a mistake, the suit said.

When Fincher's daughter had a miscarriage, the mother hurt for not
being there to comfort her.

"I lost a lot that I can never get back," Fincher said.


On March 15, a grand jury indicted Fincher for trafficking meth,
though the GBI hadn't returned lab results.

Delays at the GBI's labs have been well-known in recent years, as the
already-busy agency has taken on more work, such as tests resulting
from the opioid epidemic, a huge backlog of unexamined rape kits and
more police shooting investigations.

On March 22, the GBI issued its report, saying the bag taken from
Fincher's car contained no controlled substances.

But that was not the morning when she woke up and realized it was all
over. Nor was the next day, or the next. It was 13 days before she was
released from jail, still facing the same charges. She left simply by
signing her name, without posting the $1 million bond. The reason for
her delayed release is unknown. Monroe's interim DA Elizabeth Bobbitt
didn't respond to an email for comment.

On April 18, Fincher appeared for her arraignment and the charges were

Since her release, she's relished being back with family. But she said
the ordeal still haunts her life. The charge shows up on background
checks, the suit said. She lives with trauma. When she sees a cop
behind her, she gets nervous.

Her first thought is to check the floorboard.
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