Michael J. Zalewski
Michael J. Zalewski

SPRINGFIELD — A proposal to equip Chicago police with field drug tests is one step closer to becoming law.

The legislation, which passed unanimously through the House Judiciary-Criminal Committee on Wednesday, would create a pilot program for Chicago police officers to test suspicious controlled substances at police stations instead of waiting for a result from a crime lab.

It would also deem the tests — which can check for marijuana, heroin and cocaine — admissible to establish probable cause in preliminary trial hearings.

Under current law, probable cause hearings in illicit substance cases cannot happen until an Illinois State Police chemistry lab sends drug test results back to a state’s attorney.

That process, according to the bill and Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney John P. Carroll Jr., takes about two weeks.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Michael J. Zalewski, D-Riverside, said implementing the field tests would not only expedite that process, it would also lessen crime labs’ burdens so they can focus on more important tests such as rape kits.

Matthew P. Jones, the top lobbyist for the state’s attorneys appellate prosecutor, said during the hearing that the tests are “very simple, mechanically.”

“You put the drugs in. You close it up. You take it out. It either turns a color or it doesn’t,” he said. “For anybody who’s had children, it’s no more difficult than a pregnancy test, in terms of its simplicity.”

Carroll said field-testing benefits would be twofold.

Administering a field test could potentially allow a defendant to leave the police station as soon as it indicated a negative result, he said, and it would save money because the Cook County Department of Corrections spends $143 per day per defendant to hold someone while awaiting the same results from a crime lab.

He pointed to 2013 preliminary court hearing numbers to highlight the time that could be saved by allowing field drug tests. About 6,000 of that year’s 22,000 preliminary hearings resulted with a no probable cause finding.

He said a vast majority of those cases involved low-level narcotics.

“I think this represents a really good bill that would move low-level narcotics cases through the system much faster,” he said

While the bill would allow the tests to establish probable cause in a preliminary hearing, an official lab test would still be necessary for trial. Once a field test comes back positive and establishes probable cause, Carroll said, only then would the state’s attorney call for an official lab report from the state police.

“We think on that end, for the state, it would save money,” he said.

The legislation is aimed at Chicago police, but Zalewski said he wants the legislature to quickly incorporate suburban police departments if it proves to be successful.

No one spoke in opposition to the bill at Wednesday’s hearing.

Rep. John Anthony called the proposed tests a much-needed asset for police officers.

The Plainfield Republican said field-testing is a necessary policing process that would put “another tool on the belt that officers will have.”

The proposed legislation is House Bill 356.