A Philadelphia Story


This story from the Philadelphia Inquirer caught my eye. (And gave me an opportunity to steal a picture from Dan’s airline screening playset post.) Janet Lee, a Bryn Mawr student, was on her way home from the holidays. At the Philadelphia Int’l Airport, she was arrested because her checked bags contained condoms full of flour, which the police mistakenly identified in two field tests as cocaine and amphetamines. According to Lee, she and hall-mates had created the bags as stress balls as an exam-time gag. The system held Lee in jail for three weeks on $500,000 bail:

Lee acted tough to protect herself. She did modern-dance moves to keep limber. Inmates saw this and gossiped: “Everyone thought I knew karate because I’m Asian.” She certainly didn’t discourage the stereotype.

Inmates saw the high volume of visitors and figured she was important. Again, she did not discourage the notion. She did not tell her cell mates that the visitors were actually volunteers from Catholic churches in Philadelphia who had taken up her cause.

The volunteers helped her hire [a lawyer, and former prosecutor, named David] Oh.

“I believed her story because things just didn’t add up,” Oh said. For one thing, Oh said, the field tests were odd because they detected the presence of not one drug but three.

“People don’t mix drugs like that,” Oh said.

First, Oh contacted Bryn Mawr and confirmed that Lee’s dorm mates had, in fact, made the condoms together during a pre-exam session they call a “hall tea.”

Then, Oh said, he called Assistant District Attorney Charles Ehrlich, who agreed to expedite laboratory tests. Ehrlich also agreed to help seek reduced bail, Oh said. A day after the new test came back and confirmed that the substance was flour, Lee was released.

She flew home first class.

There are a few notable things about this story. The draconian D.A.’s office (all considered) gave Lee a huge break because of her connections – a social capital that most defendants do not have. It is also surprising (and heartening) that Philadelphia Airport is screening luggage well enough to catch this (potential contraband). I also wonder about the remarkably high bail set for a college student who had no prior record that we know about, and the jail authorities apparent decision not to put her into protective custody. On the other hand, I’m not surprised at all at the error with the tests. I wonder if the police department has studied the false positive rate carefully.

Needless to say, Lee has now filed a civil rights claim against the police (and probably a claim against the city for their poor drug-testing training). Given her story, the City should settle. But knowing the City Solicitor’s inflexible litigation strategy, I doubt they will anytime soon.

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17 Responses

  1. Christine says:

    Maybe she was held with such a high bail because her story is so stupid. I understand that I’ve been out of college for awhile, but I find it strange that college women would put flour in condoms to make “stress balls” and then be so enamored with them that they packed some to take home for the holidays.

    Would we be so sympathetic of a different defendant held for having a homemade non-bomb in his suitcase that looked a lot like a homemade bomb? Why do you think she should have been put in protective custoday? Because she’s a college girl? If all defendants held in jail are presumed innocent, why would some be more presumed than others?

  2. Dave Hoffman says:

    I agree on the foolishness of the behavior.

    Although I think there is a difference between a bomb and drugs, I agree that I’d be less sympathetic to the fake-bomb suspect you hypothesized. Probably because the job of screeners at the airport ought to be security, not enforcing the drug laws.

    Yes, I think there are reasons to treat folks without records in jail differently than folks with them. Don’t you?

  3. Adam says:

    I’m curious what the foolishness is here. I’d prefer to live in a country where a failure to examine ones behavior and posessions through the lens of what the police might think of them wasn’t considered foolish.

  4. mkb says:

    @Adam: We have a name for societies in which everyone must examine their behavior and possessions through the lens of what the police might think. These societies are called “police states.”

  5. Dan Filler says:

    Another big issue implicated by this story is the frequency with which field tests produce false positives. Most defendants (in Philadelphia, at least) are arrested and held until the preliminary hearing based on field test results. Typically in Philly, the DA actually has a lab test in hand when she proceeds to the preliminary hearing. In other jurisdictions, however, I suspect that people are held far longer based on field tests alone. For example, it seems plausible to imagine that many grand juries or preliminary hearing judges might find that the field test constitutes sufficient evidence to bind a case over for trial. In these cases, it is up to the grace of the DA to decide to accelerate lab testing of the drugs – or let an innocent defendant sit in jail for months or longer. Unfortunately, this “grace” will probably be doled out primarily to those with social capital, as Dave suggests.

  6. Dave Hoffman says:

    Adam, in my view the foolishness is to take items that look like packages of cocaine through airline security. Planning to avoid hassle at an airport doesn’t make this a police state.

    I have looked online for frequency of field-test false positives without much luck. This seems like the type of issue that a public-interest lawfirm could profitably litigate.

  7. meep says:

    Well, I doubt she was trying to fool anybody. I can see a perfectly good reason the stuff ended up in her bags… she may have been rushed on her packing job and just threw a bunch of stuff in her luggage. I ended up with some really weird things on trips when I found papers inside my clothes that I scooped up off the floor.

    Another possibility is that she was expecting the holidays at home to be really stressful, and wanted to bring the squeeze bags with her.Or she was going to slip them in the stockings of family and friends as a joke. I did much stranger things in college (like drive to a different state in the middle of the night to throw out trash at a rest stop. I did that about once a month for a couple years.)

  8. mark says:

    Maybe Ms. Lee should have thought about the consequenses of her actions. I think that her case should be thrown out and she should be charged with something. Look at all of the time & money spent becuase she thought this would be a “funny joke”. Grow a brain Janet! You didn’t come down with the rain yesterday. Your an idiot for doing something like that in the first place. Maybe you should have to pay back the taxpayers money you waisted!!!!

  9. Dave Hoffman says:

    Marypat: Silly, yes, unforgivable, no.

    Mark: Being put in jail for three weeks on a 500K bond is a pretty draconian remedy for what seems clearly to have been an innocent mistake. Taxpayer money was wasted because the police erred.

  10. Future suspect says:

    It is also surprising (and heartening) that Philadelphia Airport is screening luggage well enough to catch this (potential contraband)

    This praise for systematic warrantless searches seems entirely unjustified. And what *good* have they done? Not aided airline security — that’s entirely due to reinforced cockpit doors.

    I look forward to your praise of routine body searches at busy street corners.

    Please re-read the Fourth Amendment.

  11. amy scott says:

    Meep: Thank you!

    As a fellow BMC student and a friend of Janet’s.. while condoms filled with flour may seem absurd to everyone else.. to us they’re necessary. You’re at a single-sex, highly-intellectualized college, stressed out of your mind more than you’ve ever been in your life until this point. What better way to bond with your hallmates than to have your Hall Advisor (H.A.) throw a stress-buster tea (all get-togethers are called “teas” at bryn mawr – don’t ask!) and make flour filled condoms.

    Why was Janet bringing them home? Because she found them hilarious! A smart but naive Catholic girl who had never even touched a condom before filled three of them with flour!

    After finishing finals week without sleeping for three days, of course it seemed like the best thing in the world to pack for home!

    The real questions people should be asking are why Bryn Mawr wasn’t contacted and asked for verification of her story and also, why she was detained for THREE WEEKS without further testing being done in a timely manner!? Think about it folks.. why would anyone, especially someone who attends any sort of established, respected institution, pack three large condoms with drugs (and mixing coke, amphetamines and opium together? what a waste of good drugs! kidding, kind of ;)) and put them in a suitcase that would go through airport security? Step off of your high horse and remember what it’s like for two seconds to be a naive college freshwoman. How would you have liked spending three weeks locked in prison with no way of making a half million dollar bail? Especially when you had just finished your first semester of college across the country from your family. She missed Christmas and New Years celebrations and THEN only had a week to spend with her family before heading back to Bryn Mawr!

    A little compassion folks – she has every right to sue the pants off the Philadelphia police department and TSA!

  12. Onikaze says:

    How does a “highly-intellecutalized” college churn out a woman that is so “naive” that she doesn’t realize that drugs are frequently smuggled in condoms and that “mysterious white substances” are often cause for alarm and typically overreaction these days? Are TVs, radios, movies, games, newspapers, magazines, and general discussion about the outside world forbidden at Bryn Mawr? This sounds like one of those cases where an individual may be book smart, but have absolutely no understanding of the world in general. Intellect without common sense can be a dangerous thing. If you’re that naive, maybe it’s better you’re tucked away from the “big, bad” world anyway.

    Besides, I’ve been through four college and advanced degrees, and between finals, teaching duties, research, and generating publications, I’ve never been so stressed as to think, “Oh, durr.. I’ll put these condoms with a white powder in my suitcase. I’m sure these will breeze through airport security.”

    Trust me, nothing suspicious gets overlooked at airport security terminals. The problem in the US is that the people working airport security are idiots. As much of a hassle as they can be, though, try explaining what your contact lens case is to a German officer patting you down with one hand and holding an assault rifle in the other on a day when the Frankfurt airport has had a bomb threat made. THEN you can talk about how airline passengers shouldn’t be expected to use the common sense creation gave a turnip.

    The cops clearly messed up. But Janet is not blameless. What she did was stupid and there is no amount of explaining and rationalization that will absolve her of that. But it’s not a case of 50/50 blame. The cops bear maybe 90% of the blame for dropping the ball so badly, but Janet bears 10% at the very least for pulling such a boneheaded move. Apparently her brain was in the forth condom left at her dorm. And why should she have been any less of a suspect because she was an “innocent” and “naive” college girl? What if it had been a man coming from Columbia to go ski in Aspen after a bout of medical school exams? Would we assume that he was just stressed and coming from Columbia with three condoms filled with white powder was an innocent and naive mistake, or would we now be thinking that it was fortunate he was found innocent, but still got what he was asking for?

    And for future reference, you can buy stress balls for about the same price as the components to make your little surrogate weenie squeezies.

  13. Kaimi says:

    True story, not unlike the “bomb” scenario suggested by Christine:

    When I was visiting home while in law school, a well-meaning relative with, err, let’s say “unusual views of medicine” cornered me and explained to me her latest theory. It involved hidden microscopic parasites and evil conspiracy of silence by the medical establishment (this is the same person who thinks the U.N. is an evil conspiracy), and most importantly it involved radio waves.

    The theory is that certain harmful parasites can be destroyed if a person broadcasts certain frequencies of radio waves through the body, on a daily basis. As it turns out, one can pick up the parts for suchc a transmitter for a few bucks at Radio Shack — then just radio-wave yourself daily, and viola, good health.

    I nodded. Yes, yes, very interesting. I see. Very interesting. (It’s better than arguing against – trust me).

    A few days later, she said she had made me a radio device, and she presented me with this homemade doohickey. Wires, battery, radio transmitter. Take this back to New York, I’ll make another for your wife.

    I was traveling light, with only carry-on. And I said, there is no way in hell I’m going to walk up to airport security carrying a homemade radio transmitter in my carry-on luggage.

    I could just see it.

    “Hey guys, that’s just my health transmitter. It sends beneficial radio waves through my body to destroy the viruses that the medical conspiracy won’t tell you about.”

    “You have the right to remain silent . . .”

  14. Mayer Bendet says:

    You’ve got to be kidding!

    There is something to be said about people with fantasy theories.

    I for one love PINE TREE HONEY, an extract from PINE TREES.

    It has medicinal powers professed in University research studies.

    I buy it by the case at http://www.naturesfinestcorp.com

    I want to stay sane and healthy.

  15. Martn says:

    This is too ignorant. No, she was not innocent, no, she was not naive. She was stupid. Granted the police acted almost as stupid, but the incident happens because she was inclined to engage in such ignorant behavour. AND, she is being rewarded for it! What are you doing in college, that is a place of higher learning! What you did exhibited no higher learning, just stupidity. So, enjoy the money! Hopefully you will take a moment to consider the people whos time you wasted, the taxpayers you defrauded, and showing the nation just how stupid you are.


  16. Get Real says:

    Let’s see – she has no previous record. If that quantity WERE drugs, it would just mean she hadn’t been caught before.

    The police “should have known” they weren’t drugs? That’s what labs are for. You’ve been watching too much television if you think a trained police officer is going to taste an unknown substance to see what it is.

    She’s a college student so the police lab should move her testing in front of everyone else? Tell that to the hard working cab driver who’s been arrested because someone left something is his/her cab. Of course such a “lowly” person should have to wait while Miss Priss moves to the head of the line — NOT.

    And of course the police should not arrest anyone until they have absolute 100% proof of their guilt. So don’t call the police when you think there may be a burglar in your yard or a robber breaking into your home. If they don’t know exactly what happened, who did it, and have proof, they’re just jerks, right?

  17. outplay says:

    This is Ridiculous! It’s part of urban legend, part someone need to get laid… There is no way – post 9/11 that this girl did not think her actions would not draw her some attention from the authority. If she is that naive – this school seriously need to re-evaluate their admission policy… Not the brightest of the bunch. They need to convert to co-ed and use the condoms for better use!

    Sue the equipment manufacturer for the failure to detect flour but the City of philadelphia just got SCAM! It’s not like she could not have get the flour at her home and fill a couple condoms there to “practice” with her friends.

    Maybe she is not so stupid after all she just made 180K for 3 weeks!