September 22, 2019

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Tainted Breathalyzers In Massachusetts Raise Nation-Wide Questions


Over the last few decades, Americans have grown much less tolerant of drunk driving. What was once considered a more or less expected part of a “fun” weekend is, thankfully, now considered a serious crime with serious consequences.

Organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving have worked hard to make clear the devastating effects of drunk driving. And they’ve had great success. But as police have cracked down on drunk driving, detection tools have grown ever more important.

Put simply, if we, as a society, are going to take steps against drunk driving, our law enforcement entities need to actually have effective and accurate equipment for detecting and proving intoxication. Which is why a story out of Massachusetts about poorly calibrated breathalyzers is of such importance, even to those living far from the Bay State.

The Commonwealth’s Calibration Catastrophe

Here are the basics of the situation in Massachusetts. Back in 2011, the state purchased a new model of Breathalyzer – the Draeger 9510. Those machines have to be calibrated to certain specifications – unfortunately, Massachusetts’ calibration specifications are much narrower than other states, and as a result the machines required more calibration.

They did not receive these calibrations.

Unfortunately, this failure was not reported until 2015. As a result, literally thousands of DUI cases were affected, and those cases are now being systematically re-examined across the state.

The situation was exacerbated by the revelation that a state laboratory withheld documents that showed the calibration errors were more widespread than initially thought. That withholding was not the fault of local prosecutors or police, but it did dramatically understate the extent of the problem.

The Consequences of the Mistake

These errors have not come without repercussions.

All 11 Massachusetts district attorneys agreed to a deal with defense attorneys that could result in DUI convictions being thrown out across the state, though precise numbers remain to be seen.

The agreement calls for a re-examination of approximately 36,000 breathalyzer results – all between June 2011 and August 2017 (a court order originally ended the range at September 2014, but the agreement reached this August extended the range).

This does not mean that all 36,000 tests will be thrown out and result in new trials. Defendants will have to convince a judge that their guilty plea or conviction was solely the result of a failed breath test. If a defendant was convicted (or pleaded guilty) with the aid of video evidence or police observations, the conviction or plea will not be overturned, even with a questionable breathalyzer test.

Some details are still in dispute – prosecutors want to use the breathalyzer results in cases involving death or severe injury, and defense attorneys want to delay the reinstatement of breathalyzer test results until the state lab gains a national accreditation.

Why It Matters

This was not the first failing in the Massachusetts crime lab. But it is a striking demonstration of just how human and flawed law enforcement officials can be – it’s easy to forget this when popular crime shows like CSI portray crime lab personnel as brilliant heroes seeking justice at all costs.

More fundamentally, however, the Massachusetts story should resonate outside the state as a clear reminder of the importance of sound legal representation in DUI prosecutions. There’s often an assumption among the public that DUI cases are straightforward and, from a defense perspective, hopeless – if there’s a positive breathalyzer test, the defendant is guilty and it’s all over but the shouting, as the saying goes.

But there are a lot of details involved even in these cases, and it’s best not to make any assumptions about the inevitability of a legal case. Finding skilled legal representation is important, even when a case looks hopeless – a good attorney can carefully examine the details of a DUI arrest to determine if there are any technical or legal issues.

In addition, the Massachusetts case should spark some introspection and self-criticism in crime labs across the country. Reformers from outside the system now have even more reason to look closely at these institutions and examine their procedures – and government officials should not be obstructive in response to these inquiries. Talk to your attorney today about how this could relate to your DUI case.