Officials tout drug-detection device as time-saver
by Tim Lockette
Oct 15, 2013 | 4434 views |  0 comments | 57 57 recommendations | email to a friend | print
JSU crime lab's TruNarc.  This is a device that can identify drugs very quickly.   In this photo the device is shooting a laser into the drugs which are located on the left side of the unit.    Photo by Bill Wilson.
JSU crime lab's TruNarc. This is a device that can identify drugs very quickly. In this photo the device is shooting a laser into the drugs which are located on the left side of the unit. Photo by Bill Wilson.
In the time it takes to tell a good joke, Mark Hopwood can tell crystal meth from cocaine, and cocaine from Sweet'N Low.

Armed with a TruNarc – a $20,000 device that looks vaguely like a handheld video game – Hopwood can train a laser on a bag of white crystals, wait a minute, and get a verdict on whether it's ketamine or corn starch.

"The Anniston police came down last week and scanned 31 items," said Hopwood, an analyst for the Calhoun-Cleburne Drug Task Force. "You can knock out that many in a day."

Hopwood and Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh are traveling to Montgomery on Wednesday to try to sell state officials on the TruNarc analyzer, a device they claim can be a money-saver for the state.

When police pick up a suspect on drug charges, it can take 18 months to get lab results from the state Department of Forensic Sciences. Calhoun County officials claim the TruNarc can give results that are just as accurate, but without the wait. An initial read from device takes about a minute, though detailed results take longer to process.

Results from the TruNarc aren't admissible in court, but McVeigh said it can still help move drug cases through the courts faster. That's because McVeigh can send the results of the TruNarc analysis to a defendant's attorney long before the state lab's results are done.

"We can show him the results, and he can start thinking about how he'll plead," McVeigh said.

Attempts to reach Bill Broome, an Anniston defense attorney and president-elect of the Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, for comment on the TruNarc were unsuccessful Tuesday.

Calhoun County's drug task force was among the first law enforcement agencies in the state to acquire the device, purchased for the task force by the city of Oxford. Hopwood said it's used in six other counties, most of them in the northeastern corner of the state.

The device uses a technology called Raman spectroscopy, in which one substance can be distinguished from another by the way laser light scatters when it hits the substance. A spokesman for TruNarc's manufacturer said Raman spectroscopy has been around for at least 30 years, though hand-held devices that use the technology have been around for only about a decade.

"The technology was developed in 2004, and was primarily used as a battlefield device," said Scott Fitzpatrick, safety and security specialist for Thermo Fisher Scientific, which makes the device. "It was used to detect explosives."

Fitzpatrick said the device has a false positive rate of 0.0002 percent, which means it wrongly finds drugs in one out of every 5,000 instances. Hopwood said that's about as good as results from the state's drug crime lab.

Alabama has fewer of those labs than it used to. In 2011, a tight budget year, the state closed three of the nine crime labs it operated across the state. One of those, run by Hopwood, was at McClellan. Since then, McVeigh's office, the drug task force and Jacksonville State University's Center for Applied Forensic Sciences have worked together to bring some of those crime-lab functions back.

Hopwood said the TruNarc has actually paid for itself in cash seized from convicted drug dealers. More than $135,000 in fines have been levied against defendants who pleaded guilty after TruNarc tests, according to numbers Hopwood provided, but the payment rate on court fines is typically low.

McVeigh said he and Hopwood planned to meet in Montgomery Wednesday with officials from the Office of Prosecution Services, or OPS, to convince them to make use of the TruNarc statewide. OPS oversees district attorneys' offices across the state.

"We're hoping to get them in every county," McVeigh said.

McVeigh said he'd also like to see a law making TruNarc results admissible in court. He said he hoped to see a bill in the 2014 session, but did not have a sponsor for the bill yet.

Attempts to reach OPS director Randy Hillman Tuesday afternoon were not successful.

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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