Inmate freed after test finds powder isn’t meth
By REBECCA CATALANELLO
Published October 10, 2007
TAMPA – Cynthia Lynn Hunter spent 50 days in the Orient Road Jail.
On each of those 50 days, she maintained she was innocent of the charge of methamphetamine possession.
That felony arrest cost her her job, her kids’ trust and her boyfriend, she says.
"I promise you," she recalls telling the deputy who arrested her at a Brandon Wal-Mart in August. "It’s not meth – it’s dehydrated cat urine!"
Dehydrated cat urine?
The Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office didn’t buy it.
Deputies found the vial of yellow, chalky substance while searching Hunter’s purse during a pat-down. A security guard had seen her place beer, undergarments and a mixer into a shopping cart, then walk out of the Wal-Mart without paying, according to an arrest report.
Right away, a deputy poured a chemical on the powder to see if it had drugs in it. Such field tests – often called "presumptive tests" – are accurate 90 percent of the time, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Problem is, Hunter’s case falls into the remaining 10 percent: The meth wasn’t meth. It wasn’t anything illegal, according to FDLE lab results.
After 50 days in jail, Hunter is angry. She was released from jail Thursday, after pleading guilty to the petty theft charge. But now she’s looking for a lawyer to help her pursue a civil lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office for jailing her on a charge that turned out to be false.
"This ruined my life," she said.
Sheriff’s Office stands by actions
Col. Greg Brown, who oversees patrol services, offered no apology for the charge Tuesday.
When Hunter was booked into jail Aug. 15, authorities found that besides the petty theft, she was also wanted by Plant City police on an outstanding warrant for violation of probation for reckless driving.
"Had she not committed a crime, none of this would have come to our attention," Brown said. "The woman should not be stealing products from Wal-Mart and be walking around with warrants for violation of probation."
Still in dispute is exactly what Hunter was doing with what she says was cat urine.
According to Hunter, a 38-year-old single mother from Lithia, she got it while hanging out with some friends. Someone passed around the small vials as kind of a novelty joke, she said. "He said it was the latest thing on the market," she said. "We were just talking, having a few laughs."
When she showed it to her 17-year-old son, he suggested it might be a good science project to find out how to dehydrate cat urine. That’s why she kept it, she said Tuesday.
But prosecutors and deputies said Hunter told a different story during questioning: she wanted to use it to help her son pass a drug screening.
"The officer says … she thought the vial contained stuff that would make her son test negative on drug screening because he is on probation and must take mandatory drug tests," Assistant State Attorney Tim Anderson told Judge Debra Behnke on Sept. 6, according to transcripts.
Hunter says that’s a lie. Her sons have never been arrested, she said.
State records list no arrests for her younger son. Her 20-year-old son, Dustin Witherington, did face two charges as a juvenile. Neither of them were drug arrests, according to records.
Both a State Attorney’s spokesman and Brown pointed out Tuesday that while the FDLE report showed the substance Hunter was carrying didn’t contain drugs, only Hunter has said that it was cat urine.
"They can tell you what it’s not," State Attorney’s spokesman Mark Cox said of FDLE. "They don’t tell you what it is."
Dehydrated human urine – packaged in small vials – is used in products such as the Original Whizzinator, which is designed to help people pass drug tests using someone else’s urine.
Drug charge not only reason for jail
It is also unclear whether Hunter might have been spared her 50 days in jail had it not been for the drug charge.
When prosecutors dropped the possession charge, Hunter simultaneously pleaded guilty to the theft, and Judge Behnke counted the 50 days she’d already spent in jail as her sentence for the theft.
As for the violation of probation charge, Hunter was released on her own recognizance, according to jail records.
But Cox, the State Attorney spokesman, said a judge might have held Hunter in jail after the petty theft arrest simply because of the warrant for violating probation. Her other past arrests have included failure to appear in court and driving under the influence.
But it is still puzzling why the lab results took so long to get to court.
Records show the FDLE processed the sample and had results showing the substance was negative for drugs Sept. 6 – a full month before Hunter was released from jail. The Sheriff’s Office picked up those results Sept. 14, an FDLE spokeswoman said. Prosecutors got the paperwork Sept. 19, but it didn’t come to the attention of Anderson at the Prosecutor’s Office until Sept. 25, Cox said.
Anderson immediately contacted Hunter’s public defender, Dana Herce-Fulgeria, and they scheduled the Thursday hearing at which the drug charge was dropped.
Hunter, who lost her job as a bookkeeper for a screen company, said Tuesday she’s glad to be out of jail.
"It’s just a big mishap," she said. "And unfortunately, I can’t get the (50) days back."
Times researchers John Martin and Angie Drobnik Holan contributed to this report.
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