Drinking alcohol and driving is dangerous, but so are the machines police use to arrest people for DUI.
A New York Times investigation found that machines used to test alcohol-blood levels of allegedly impaired drivers in the United States are often unreliable. The supposedly sensitive scientific instruments — commonly called breathalyzers — used by “virtually every police station in America” too often are inaccurate.
That means that these machines are helping to convict some drivers as criminals when, actually, they might be unimpaired. The problem machines also are freeing dangerous motorists to continue driving, as challenges to the faulty devices prompt courts to reject breath tests.
Glitches found in breathalyzers
Judges in Massachusetts and New Jersey have tossed over 30,000 breath tests in the past 12 months alone, largely because of human error and lax governmental oversight.
Across the country, thousands of other tests also have been invalidated in recent years:
- Rats were nesting in the alcohol breath-testing machine used by the Worcester Massachusetts Police Department.
- A county judge in Pennsylvania called it “extremely questionable” whether any of his state’s breath tests could withstand serious scrutiny.
- In Florida, judges described the state’s breathalyzer as a “magic black box” with “significant and continued anomalies.”
Improper calibration of these machines in other police departments yielded alcohol blood levels at times 40 percent too high. In some cases, neglect meant that chemicals in machines had lost potency.
The New York Times interviewed over 100 lawyers, scientists, executives and police officers, and reviewed tens of thousands of pages of court records, corporate filings, confidential emails and contracts. Yet the tests have become all but unavoidable. Every state punishes drivers who refuse to take one when ordered by a police officer.
By the side of the road or at the police station, drivers stopped by police for allegedly impaired driving are given a breathalyzer test. They blow into what is essentially a miniature science lab that estimates the concentration of alcohol in their blood. If the level is 0.08 or higher, they are all but certain to be convicted of a crime, according to The Times.
Portable machines pose a problem
Pitfalls abound. Police in cruisers often use hand-held breathalyzers at the scene. Tests from these portable machines are not admissible in court in most states (California is among the exceptions).
The portable machines are inexpensive and easy to maintain but can be inconsistent. Older women sometimes have trouble producing enough breath to get the machines to work. Toothpaste, mouthwash, breath mints, hand sanitizer, and even burping can skew test results.
Test results from the portable machines often trigger an arrest, which leads to a test on another machine at the police station. That result determines whether someone is charged — and, often, whether they’re convicted.
In most of the country, the threshold for illegal drunkenness is 0.08 grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood. The only way to measure that directly is to draw blood, which requires a warrant. Breath tests are simpler. The breathalyzers cost $10,000 each or more. About two dozen companies sell them in the U.S.
Breath-testing devices are not operational right out of the box. Each machine must be calibrated using samples with known alcohol concentrations. The process can take an hour or more per machine.
Contact Matt Bodman Criminal Defense And Personal Injury Attorney in South Carolina today for help with DUI cases, and to learn more about the unreliability of alcohol breath tests.