A Philadelphia Story
posted by Dave Hoffman
This story from the Philadelphia Inquirer caught my eye. (And gave me an opportunity to steal a picture from Dan’s airline screening playset post.) Janet Lee, a Bryn Mawr student, was on her way home from the holidays. At the Philadelphia Int’l Airport, she was arrested because her checked bags contained condoms full of flour, which the police mistakenly identified in two field tests as cocaine and amphetamines. According to Lee, she and hall-mates had created the bags as stress balls as an exam-time gag. The system held Lee in jail for three weeks on $500,000 bail:
Lee acted tough to protect herself. She did modern-dance moves to keep limber. Inmates saw this and gossiped: “Everyone thought I knew karate because I’m Asian.” She certainly didn’t discourage the stereotype.
Inmates saw the high volume of visitors and figured she was important. Again, she did not discourage the notion. She did not tell her cell mates that the visitors were actually volunteers from Catholic churches in Philadelphia who had taken up her cause.
The volunteers helped her hire [a lawyer, and former prosecutor, named David] Oh.
“I believed her story because things just didn’t add up,” Oh said. For one thing, Oh said, the field tests were odd because they detected the presence of not one drug but three.
“People don’t mix drugs like that,” Oh said.
First, Oh contacted Bryn Mawr and confirmed that Lee’s dorm mates had, in fact, made the condoms together during a pre-exam session they call a “hall tea.”
Then, Oh said, he called Assistant District Attorney Charles Ehrlich, who agreed to expedite laboratory tests. Ehrlich also agreed to help seek reduced bail, Oh said. A day after the new test came back and confirmed that the substance was flour, Lee was released.
She flew home first class.
There are a few notable things about this story. The draconian D.A.’s office (all considered) gave Lee a huge break because of her connections – a social capital that most defendants do not have. It is also surprising (and heartening) that Philadelphia Airport is screening luggage well enough to catch this (potential contraband). I also wonder about the remarkably high bail set for a college student who had no prior record that we know about, and the jail authorities apparent decision not to put her into protective custody. On the other hand, I’m not surprised at all at the error with the tests. I wonder if the police department has studied the false positive rate carefully.
Needless to say, Lee has now filed a civil rights claim against the police (and probably a claim against the city for their poor drug-testing training). Given her story, the City should settle. But knowing the City Solicitor’s inflexible litigation strategy, I doubt they will anytime soon.