A major drug field test error plus an ICE detainer turned one Maryland man’s life upside down.
Maryland resident Leon Haughton was detained for nearly three months after officers suspected some honey of being “liquid methamphetamine” and a field test went off as positive.
Though all charges but one were dropped after a follow-up test found no trace of the illicit drug, Haughton couldn’t even get out on bail due to the fact that the charges triggered an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainer. So he stayed behind bars.
Haughton has a green card and has lived in Maryland for nearly 10 years. Upon coming back from visiting family in Jamaica for the holidays, drug-sniffing dogs at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport alerted to his bag, which contained honey from a roadside stand in the island country. He was detained and interrogated by Customs and Border Protection for two hours before being arrested.
Nearly three weeks later, lab results confirmed that the honey contained no trace of a controlled substance. The three felony charges were dropped, but a misdemeanor possession charge remained until the honey could be tested again in a facility in Georgia.
While they waited, Haughton was repeatedly denied bail because of the ICE detainer triggered by the dropped felony charges. Unfortunately, this occurred during the record-breaking government shutdown, and nobody at ICE could be reached to have the detainer lifted.
Even if Haughton was released, he could potentially be detained by ICE and deported as long as the detainer was in place. He ended up spending a total of 82 days in jail and lost both of his jobs until the final test proved him innocent.
Haughton suspects that racism was the primary motivator for the initial arrest that began this nightmare, saying that the agents at the airport questioned him about “a big Jamaican gang and drug dealing conspiracy.”
“They messed up my life,” Haughton said, according to The Washington Post. “I want the world to know that the system is not right. If I didn’t have strong people around me, they would probably leave me in jail. You’re lost in the system.”
Drug field tests have repeatedly come under fire for giving false positives, yet they are still commonly used by officers. Unfortunately, strict and murky immigration policy has created a situation like Haughton’s on multiple occasions.
“It’s not unusual that people who are held in criminal custody with ICE detainers have their detentions prolonged and then the charges are dismissed,” said American Immigration Council attorney Emma Winger.
Recovering From Trauma
The damage to these innocent individuals from prolonged detention can be difficult to recover from. Not only was Haughton out of work, he said his kids’ performance at school suffered in his absence and that one of them cried when he came home, unable to recognize their own father.
Visiting his family in Jamaica again could be an emotional ordeal for him.
“I’m scared to even travel right now,” he said. “You’re innocent, and you can end up in jail.”