Whistleblower: 12 days in jail over a faulty drug test

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Staff writer
  • Updated: August 15, 2011 - 10:23 AM

Warroad woman was held in Canada after a motor oil bottle tested positive for heroin.

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Janet Goodin is a Minnesotan grannie that was wrongly accused of smuggling drugs into Canada. She lives in Warroad, MN. July 25, 2011

Photo: Boris Minkevich, Winnipeg Free Press

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In April, Janet Goodin of Warroad, Minn., was crossing into Canada for an evening of bingo with her daughters when an officer with the Canadian Border Service conducted a routine search of her van. The officer found an old bottle of motor oil, did a field test and told her that it contained heroin.

"I can't even describe the feeling of amazement," Goodin, 66, said in an interview. "I said, 'That's not possible, it's leftover oil.'"

The bottle was re-tested, and agents said it again revealed the presence of heroin. Goodin was arrested, handcuffed and taken to jail, where she was strip-searched. The motor oil was sent to a Canadian federal laboratory, which eventually determined there was no heroin in it. After 12 days behind bars, Goodin was released.

Goodin's case has been seized upon by critics who question the reliability of field drug-test kits, which are used widely by law enforcement.

"She is what you call collateral damage in the drug war," said former FBI special agent Frederic Whitehurst, a North Carolina attorney and forensic consultant with a Ph.D. in analytic chemistry, who has publicly raised concerns about field drug-test kits. "When you run the tests, you run into all sorts of problems from overzealous cops."

Goodin was actually arrested twice: first by the Border Service, which performed the field test, and then by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), which took over her case from the Border Service.

The Border Service won't explain how they made the mistake. But Sgt. Line Karpish of the RCMP said her agency used "reasonable grounds" based on information it got from the Canadian Border Service. She noted that drugs are smuggled into Canada by all types of people. "We find it in diapers, we find it on old ladies, young ladies, beautiful ladies," Karpish says. "You can't let 'grandma' cloud your judgment about the police force. That's why terrorists use kids."

As she waited in a Canadian jail, Goodin, who said her only court-related record is a bad check she wrote in 2001, became increasingly alarmed after learning that she could get a 2-year prison sentence. Rather than pay at least $5,000 cash to make bail, she decided to stay in jail and save the money for a lawyer.

Meanwhile, the RCMP sent the bottle of oil to the federal Canadian health lab for testing, "and because the person in question was a U.S. citizen, a rush was put on it," Karpish said. "We were called by the lab and told this isn't contraband. We said, 'Okay, this isn't good.' Our [RCMP] member contacted the federal crown [the prosecutor], informed them of this finding. They proceeded to stay the charges, and she was released from custody right away."

Whitehurst finds the delay unacceptable. "Twelve days is really not a rush job," he said. While he said that it cannot be done for everyone, the bottle of oil could have been hand-delivered to the Canadian lab, which could have analyzed it within an hour.

There have been other controversies over field drug tests. In 2008, a Canadian couple who have a homemade chocolate business, Ron Obadia and Nadine Artemis, were detained by Canadian border agents and then the U.S. border patrol after they were told their chocolate tested positive for marijuana. Both times, after many hours, they were released. They said they bought the same test kits to test their own chocolate and other brands, including Hershey. The tests detected marijuana in all of them.

The couple has followed the Goodin case. "I think it's horrific," said Nadine Artemis. "I can't believe she had to spend time in jail."

Field drug-test companies defend their product. Jack Thorndike, a sales and training representative in North Carolina for Nark field drug tests, says that when the tests are properly conducted, they can be used by law enforcement as confirmation of probable cause of illicit drugs. Both Hennepin County and the city of Minneapolis use Nark products, but the Canadian Border Service uses a different brand, Thorndike said.

Field tests are reliable, he said, but they are insufficient evidence for conviction and require follow-up lab tests.

Goodin has hired a Canadian lawyer and doesn't want to talk about her next step. A widow who lives on Social Security, Goodin told Whistleblower, "I was so angry at first, and then I got to be really afraid. ... If it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody."

Since her May 2 release, she has crossed the Canadian border at least 10 times. "The first time I took the van back, I went over it with a fine-toothed comb," she said. "I was shaking in my boots. I don't speak to them unless they speak to me. ... Now they all know me."

Staff writer Larry Oakes contributed to this report.

rfurst@startribune.com • 612-673-4224

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