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BOP Suspends Use of Ion Spectrometry Drug Detection Devices

On April 10, 2008, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) discontinued the use of all ion spectrometry drug detection machines, more commonly known as ion scanners. According to a memo from BOP assistant director Joyce K. Conley, “the software for these machines requires correction and we have contacted the manufacturers to ensure they make the necessary modifications.”

The memo further stated that any BOP visitor whose visiting privileges were suspended as a result of the ion scanners could request reinstatement of their privileges by contacting the warden of the institution. Prisoners could request reinstatement on behalf of visitors affected by the ion scanners by contacting their unit team.

Most federal prisoners and their family members have long known that the BOP’s ion scanners were less than accurate. The devices, which use little wands waved over the hands and clothes of potential visitors, are supposed to detect the presence of narcotics. If drugs are detected the visitor is not allowed to visit.

Chris Dehmer, a federal prisoner at FCI Pekin whose visitors repeatedly tested positive for drugs, sued the BOP in federal court in 2007. He argued that the scanning procedures used by prison officials violated his constitutional rights.

Dehmer alleged that the ion scanners often produced false-positives, reacting to things like casual contact with “contaminated currency, perfume, prescription drugs, Robitussin, diet pills, migraine medications, anti-depressants and gasoline.”

The BOP contended in response to Dehmer’s suit that the ion scanners had “less than a 1% rate of false positive results.” However, this conflicts with a study by Kay Lumas, a doctoral candidate at Capella University in Minneapolis, who examined the efficacy of ion scanners and other trace detection devices.

Lumas’ research, published in 2007, determined that “ninety-one percent (91%) of the positive results, on confirmation, would be found to be false.” That is, almost all of the positive results from the ion scanners were actually false-positives.

The district court, on an initial merit screening of Dehmer’s lawsuit, found he had failed to state a claim under Fed.R.Civ.Proc. 12(b)(c)(6). “However,” the court noted, “it is possible that the plaintiff may be able to claim that the way the scanning procedure has been used to prevent the plaintiff from receiving visitors ... violates his constitutional rights.” The court therefore allowed Dehmer to amend his complaint. See: Dehmer v. Gonzales, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:07-cv-01218 (2007 WL 3348377).

After Dehmer filed an amended complaint, the district court conducted another merit screening. The court noted that Dehmer had alleged specific incidents when his family was denied visitation due to false-positive results from the ion scanners.

For example, Dehmer wrote that “his mother, who is on a number of medications, has tested positive on four occasions and has been denied visitation a total of 304 days. His father, a former air traffic controller, tested positive on three occasions and has been denied visitation a total of 124 days.”

The court dismissed most of Dehmer’s claims in a Sept. 22, 2008 order, but held he had stated a claim to the extent that “the repeated denials of the plaintiff’s visitation ... violated the plaintiff’s First Amendment Freedom of Association and Fifth Amendment Due Process rights.” The case was allowed to proceed, and is currently pending. See: Dehmer v. Gonzales, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:07-cv-01218 (2008 WL 4414377).

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Related legal cases

Dehmer v. Gonzales

Dehmer v. Gonzales