Police testing handheld meth detectors

By Pete Smith

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. Police are hopeful that a handheld device an Arizona company says can detect methamphetamine with the click of a button will provide them with a new investigative tool, but some lawyers already are raising concerns.

The meth scanner is being evaluated by law enforcement agencies in Missouri and Arizona. Tucson-based CDEX, the manufacturer, also plans tests on different types of meth in the next four weeks.

The company's CEO, Malcolm Philips, said the device emits ultraviolet light to scan clothes, skin or other surfaces for traces of meth as small as one microgram. A microgram, which is one-millionth of a gram, is visible only under a microscope.

Philips said meth gives off a telltale sign that differs from other chemicals, including pseudoephedrine -- a key component of meth that is present in some over-the-counter medicines.

"We tested pseudoephedrine, and it's going to give a different chemical signature than meth," Philips said.

Greg Story, a professor of atomic physics at the University of Missouri-Rolla, said the technology used in the scanner is not new.

Molecules energized by ultraviolet light emit a unique color spectrum that can be measured, Story said. Even when meth is created from different chemicals, the methamphetamine molecule would emit its unique spectral signal, he says.

"I can't speculate on (the scanner's) accuracy, but yes, in principle, it's absolutely possible," Story said.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol initially field-tested the scanner in Joplin, Springfield and Willow Springs in 2006. Troopers found it difficult to tell whether they were accurately aiming the device, Philips said.

CDEX responded by adding a laser pointer to help the user direct the scanner at the right target. "Right now, we are still in the crawling-to-walking stage," said Captain Tim Basinger of the Missouri Highway Patrol. "We haven't seen the finished product."

Greenlee, Ariz., County Sheriff Steven Tucker, whose department tested the scanner, said, "In the long term, it will save departments money once the courts buy into the technology." He doubts that the scanner would be used to obtain search warrants, but he said it would be a "great investigative tool."

Kevin Routh of the Springfield Police Department said that his department has not tested the scanner, but he knows about it. "It has the potential to be a good tool for us to use," he said. "We are definitely keeping our eyes open to the product's development."

Accuracy tests on police-supplied samples of meth have been conducted by CDEX, but the company has not reported independent verification of the tests.

"Anytime you have testing of a device by someone who stands to make a lot of money off of it, I am always suspect of that," said Stacie Bilyeu, a Springfield defense attorney. "If the testing was done by unbiased, non-partisan groups, the results would be more reliable."

That's the first concern of the American Civil Liberties Union, too, said Barry Steinhardt, director of the group's Technology and Liberty Program in Washington D.C.

"There are a lot of technologies that are pitched to law enforcement that don't work," Steinhardt said. The ACLU believes the technology needs to be independently tested before a court can admit results from the scanner into evidence, he said.

Philips said independent testing by outside experts likely will come the first time a prosecutor takes scanner-derived evidence to court. However, he said, CDEX won't wait for a successful prosecution or independent testing before putting the scanner on the market.

Law enforcement use of the scanner falls into a legal gray area, said Eric Sterling, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. The foundation's mission is to educate the public about drug policy and policing problems.

Sterling, a lawyer, provided two scenarios:

*Police use the scanner to detect meth on the door of a home suspected of being a meth lab. The central question, according to Sterling: Is that enough for a judge to issue a search warrant? He noted that all the scan would show is that someone who handled meth touched the door, and it could have been anybody.

*Police aim the scanner during routine vehicle searches at the hands and faces of drivers or at car surfaces. The question, according to Sterling: Does this search require a warrant or does this meet the standard of the evidence being in plain view? The Supreme Court has ruled that police must have a search warrant before they can use a thermal-imaging device to detect the presence of marijuana growing inside a home. Searching a car might result in a ruling different from searching a home, Sterling says.

Another concern would be the prevalence of trace amounts of illicit drugs that show up on everyday items, such as paper money.

"This scanner only detects chemicals, not criminal conduct," Bilyeu said.

CDEX expects to have the product, which will cost $2,500-$5,500 depending on the sensitivity level, available by February.

Copyright 2007 USA TODAY

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