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New NY laws will stall drug cases

Under the new laws, field tests will not be enough for arrests and bail reform will keep suspects out of police custody

Don Lehman
The Post Star

QUEENSBURY, N.Y. — Police officers from multiple agencies rolled into the Forest Park Mobile Home Park on Wednesday, backed by armored vehicles and Warren County’s heavily armed emergency response team.

The raid was part of a months-long drug investigation, and the primary target was found to have what police “field” tests showed was crack cocaine. That seizure came after police had made multiple undercover drug purchases from a man who lives in the home, authorities said.

However, the suspect was released by police and was home later Wednesday, not yet facing any criminal charges.

Authorities said that’s because of a phasing in of state law changes that take effect Jan. 1, which will make wholesale changes to how arrests and prosecutions occur. Prosecutors will have to turn over all evidence to defense counsel within 15 days of an arrest, a dramatic acceleration of the clock to move a case forward.

Warren County prosecutors have concluded that field tests on suspected drugs performed at the scene of an arrest will typically no longer be enough corroboration of drug possession allegations to immediately warrant an arrest in most cases, since a final crime lab test is needed for trial.

The substances police seize must instead be tested through a crime laboratory, a process that can take months, so that when the new time clock of 15 days for a case to be ready for trial begins tolling, there is no risk of dismissal.

“It can field test positive, and the defendant can admit that it is cocaine, but that’s still not enough,” sheriff’s Lt. Steve Stockdale said.

That’s a large shift in how things have been done for decades. As recently as this summer, before authorities began phasing in the upcoming law changes, the man who was the target of Wednesday’s raid would have been charged with felonies and likely sent to jail for lack of bail.

Field tests, which use chemical compounds that react and produce certain colors when combined with narcotics, have been used by police for decades as a means to quickly determine whether substances that people are found to possess are narcotics.

Some have questioned their accuracy. But Stockdale said the only false tests he recalled were not false positives, but false negatives. And if someone is found with a substance that field tests indicate was not drugs despite other evidence that it was, no arrest was made by the Sheriff’s Office.

Stockdale said the suspected crack cocaine that police seized at the home on Briwood Circle in Forest Park on Wednesday field tested positive for cocaine.

But the man who police took into custody at the home, a prior felon with a lengthy criminal record that included a recent arrest for illegally possessing a rifle, was jailed only on a Family Court warrant and not charged with any crimes Wednesday.

Warren County District Attorney Jason Carusone said he could not discuss Wednesday’s case, but said his office is analyzing the law changes on a case-by-case basis.

Stockdale said he fears the new rules, which include bail reform that will keep many suspects out of jail, may result in more drug overdoses, as drug dealers remain on the street when they wouldn’t be otherwise.

They will also make residents of neighborhoods where drug activity is taking place have to wait longer for satisfaction.

“A lot of times when we knock a door down in a drug case, the neighbors come out and are applauding,” Stockdale said. “Now they are going to see the dealers back home the same day.”