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When rural South Carolina sheriff’s deputies pulled over a black college football player this past August for speeding, they didn’t hesitate to search his vehicle or test the white substance they spotted on the hood of his car. A historically shoddy field test showed the white stuff caked to the man’s car was cocaine.
It was actually bird poop, as the young man repeatedly pleaded to the deputies.
The driver, Georgia Southern University student and starting quarterback Shai Werts, was soon arrested and charged with cocaine possession, then handcuffed and placed in the back of the deputy’s cruiser, panicked.
“That ain’t bird shit,” officer Deputy Charles Allen Browder III told Werts in body-camera footage obtained by local media. “I swear to god it’s not. I just tested it.”
But the $2 test that cops administered on the side of a dark road without wearing gloves was horribly wrong. In the past, similar tests have flagged powdered milk as cocaine, cotton candy as meth, and vitamins as oxycodone.
Despite the test’s questionable history, the Saluda sheriff’s office determined in an internal investigation that Browder did nothing worth reprimanding, according to records obtained by the Greenville News, so the deputy won’t be punished for an incident that could’ve risked Werts’ athletic career.
Werts was ultimately cleared of the cocaine charges because results from the state’s drug lab didn’t find any evidence of illicit drugs in the samples sent by police. The lab results were expedited and came back within eight days — but it can take up to six months for results to come back and clear someone else in a less high-profile case, according to the Greenville News.
And after Werts’ arrest made national sports media headlines, Saluda County Chief Deputy Toby Horne told the Greenville News that his deputies would no longer charge somebody solely based off the results of a presumptive drug tests. In fact, that’s what they should’ve been doing all along. The tests are known to produce false positives, so police departments are supposed to be trained in how to properly administer the tests and then weigh the results against other evidence before making an arrest. For example, the test results might be taken more seriously if the person cops are questioning has a record of prior drug convictions or is found with drug paraphernalia.
The cops in this instance had no reason to suspect Werts was using drugs. They also told the Greenville News they will not be getting rid of the tests allogether, but have used them significantly less since Werts’ arrest. Werts’ attorney did not immediately return a VICE News request for comment on the case.
“You cannot indict somebody — put somebody in jail — over something you know has a very high rate of false positives,” Omar Bagasra, a biology professor at Claflin University and director of the South Carolina Center for Biotechnology, told VICE News last month. “It’s ignorance.”
Cover: Georgia Southern quarterback Shai Werts carries the ball during the second half of the team's NCAA game against South Alabama, Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019, in Mobile, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)