Why Did Cops Think This Guy’s Daughter’s Ashes Were Meth or MDMA?

Dartavius Barnes is now suing the Springfield Police Department.
May 24, 2021, 7:20pm
​A screenshot from police bodycam video of Dartavius Barnes​ after he was detained by police on April 6, 2020.
A screenshot from police bodycam video of Dartavius Barnes after he was detained by police on April 6, 2020. (Springfield Police Department/WICS ABC)

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Dartavius Barnes was sitting in the back of a police car in Springfield, Illinois, following a traffic stop last April, when an officer showed him a tiny container he said contained either meth or ecstasy, according to recently published body camera footage from the incident. 

“No, no, no, bro, that’s my daughter,” Barnes said, horrified, as the officer presented him with the supposedly illegal drugs. “Give me that, bro.”  

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The cop was holding a small urn containing the ashes of Barnes’ deceased 2-year-old child, according to bodycam footage first published by WICS and WRSP earlier this month. But a faulty presumptive field test led cops to believe it contained drugs. Field tests are regularly used to determine the suspected presence of illicit substances by police departments across the country, despite being often horribly wrong. 

In the past, the shoddy field drug tests have flagged bird poop as cocaine, cotton candy as meth, and vitamins as oxycodone. In some circumstances, people have even been jailed for months while waiting to be cleared by more conclusive results from a state crime lab. 

Police initially pulled over Barnes on April 6, 2020, after he allegedly sped through an area following reports of gunfire, according to local outlets. Barnes told police that someone had been shooting at his car, according to bodycam footage. 

Later, when Barnes was in handcuffs and officers were searching his vehicle, police discovered marijuana and the urn, which, based on the results of a faulty presumptive field test, they believed to contain either meth or ecstasy. 

Barnes filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Springfield and several individual officers last October, alleging that cops searched his vehicle and person without a warrant, and in the process “desecrated and spilled out the ashes” of his daughter, Ta’Naja Barnes. 

Ta’Naja died of neglect and starvation in February 2019, according to The Herald & Review in Decatur, Illinois. (The baby’s mother was sentenced to 20 years in prison for murdering the child in September 2019, while the mother’s boyfriend was sentenced to 30 years behind bars in October 2020.

Attorneys for Barnes and the city of Springfield did not immediately respond to VICE News’ requests for comment. It’s unclear whether the Springfield Police Department still uses the same field drug tests. 

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Attorneys for the city denied that Barnes’ rights were violated in a court filing in December, and said officers were entitled to qualified immunity, the controversial legal doctrine that shields officers cops from personal liability for professional misconduct. 

During the police encounter last April, Barnes stepped out of the vehicle when asked and was compliant, bodycam footage shows. He admitted to having marijuana in the car, according to local outlets. An officer handcuffed him, patted him down, and informed him he was being detained.  At one point, Barnes’ father also showed up in a separate car to ask what was going on. 

While Barnes was in handcuffs, officers can be seen in the bodycam footage rummaging through his vehicle. 

Later, in a separate bodycam video posted by WICS, an officer could be seen handling the urn which he told another cop he suspected was heroin. The officer also “checked” for cocaine, he explained. He then said it looked like it was “Molly.” 

After Barnes was presented with the “drugs,” though, and contested the results, the officer moved to test the substance a second time, grabbing a product called NarcoPouch from the back of his cruiser. But Barnes continued to beg for his child’s ashes, and officers relented without conducting a second exam. One cop took the container to Barnes’ father who waited nearby. 

“It looked similar to Molly, OK?” the officer explained to Barnes’ father. “I’m just telling you.”
Barnes eventually got a notice to appear in court for the weed officers found in his car—nearly 80 grams, according to the Washington Post. He was not jailed. 

The officer let him out of handcuffs and told him he needed to keep his weed in odor-proof and child-resistant containers. It’s unclear what became of the marijuana allegation.

After his daughter’s death, Barnes wondered why he was not given custody of the child, which he had requested, according to WAND, a local NBC affiliate. He wrote in a victim impact statement for the court last October that her death had left an emptiness in his heart.