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He pleaded guilty to cocaine possession and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. It turned out to be powdered milk.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/16/2019 Antonia Farzan
A 29-year-old Oklahoma man was sentenced to 15 years in prison after police said they found cocaine in his backpack. But it wasn't drugs. © TOWFIQU/Getty Images A 29-year-old Oklahoma man was sentenced to 15 years in prison after police said they found cocaine in his backpack. But it wasn't drugs.

Cody Gregg was cruising through an industrial neighborhood southwest of downtown Oklahoma City on Aug. 12 when police spotted him. It was around 10:30 p.m., according to a probable cause affidavit obtained by the Oklahoman, and the officers noticed that the shirtless, backpack-clad homeless man didn’t have any rear lights on his bicycle. They tried to stop him, but he only pedaled harder, ditching the bike after about three blocks and running away on foot.

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When they finally caught up to Gregg and demanded to search his backpack, they found a large clear plastic bag of white powder stuffed in a coffee can.

Police concluded that the substance was cocaine, and charged Gregg with a felony. Last week, after spending nearly two months in jail, the 29-year-old pleaded guilty to cocaine possession with the intent to distribute, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. But on Thursday, just two days after learning his fate, Gregg was back in court again, this time to withdraw his guilty plea. The lab tests had come back, and they showed that the suspicious-looking white substance was actually powdered milk, the Oklahoman reported.

According to the paper, Gregg told the judge that he got the milk from a food pantry. He said that he entered a guilty plea only so that he could stop languishing in Oklahoma County Jail, which has been plagued with issues ranging from overcrowding to chronic mold and an unusually high suicide rate for decades.

On Friday, the case was dismissed and Gregg was released.

The Oklahoma City Police Department couldn’t immediately be reached late Tuesday night to clarify how powdered milk was mistaken for a stash of illegal drugs. In the probable cause affidavit obtained by the Oklahoman, an officer wrote that the baggie contained “a large amount of white powder substance that I believed to be cocaine based on my training and experience,” and that the powder “later tested positive for cocaine and was a total package weight of 45.91 grams of cocaine.”

It’s not the first time that a harmless household staple has been incorrectly categorized as an illicit drug. In 2016, the New York Times magazine and ProPublica revealed that tens of thousands of people nationwide were being jailed each year based on the results of finicky roadside drug tests that frequently produced false positives. Often, the tests were responding by environmental factors like the weather, or the presence of chemicals found in household cleaners. In some instances, police simply didn’t understand how to use them correctly.

As The Washington Post’s Radley Balko wrote last year, the list of innocent items that have been misidentified as dangerous drugs includes chocolate chip cookies, breath mints and the glaze from a Krispy Kreme doughnut. Despite growing awareness that the tests have a high error rate — some studies have found that they result in false positives a fifth or even a third of the time — many police departments continue to rely on them.

At the time of his Aug. 12 arrest, Gregg was on probation. Court records show that the 29-year-old had been arrested on drug-related charges at least three times since 2014, and had previously pleaded guilty to possessing marijuana, methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. In at least one instance, the costs of his incarceration were waived due to mental illness.

After cops found the sketchy-looking but ultimately innocent white powder, Gregg was charged with trafficking illegal drugs and jailed on a $50,000 bond. He initially pleaded not guilty, but after nearly two months in jail, he changed his mind. On Oct. 8, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, possession of a controlled dangerous substance with intent to distribute.

That same day, Gregg was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Though he was released just days later when his public defender pointed out the new evidence that had emerged, showing that the white powder tested negative for cocaine, many on social media argued that Gregg’s ordeal illustrated a larger problem with the criminal justice system.

Rather than spend months or even years in jail while awaiting a trial, people who can’t afford to pay bail often end up reluctantly pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit. The National Registry of Exonerations has found that 66 percent of people who were exonerated after being convicted of drug crimes ended up in prison in the first place because they entered a guilty plea. Similarly, the 2016 New York Times-ProPublica investigation found that more than half of the people charged with drug crimes on the basis of a faulty field test pleaded guilty at the first opportunity.

“Innocent people plea[d] guilty. A lot,” tweeted Jason Lollman, a public defender in Tulsa, who added that Oklahoma County Jail is “widely considered one of the worst in the country.”

“Any innocent person would consider pleading guilty just to get out,” he wrote.

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