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, this time to withdraw his guilty plea. The lab tests had come back, and they showed that the suspicious-looking white substance was 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 including overcrowding, 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 told The Washington Post on Wednesday that police tested the white powder with color-changing drug tests that contain the chemicals cobalt thiocyanate and Marquis reagents. 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 to environmental factors like the weather, and cobalt thiocyanate, in particular, can be affected by 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 he 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 because of mental illness.
After police found the 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 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 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.
This story has been updated.