Breathalyzers: Why Aren’t They Warranted to Measure Alcohol?

Posted by Lawrence Taylor on November 5th, 2004

If you are facing drunk driving charges, you will have taken (unless you refused) a chemical test for blood alcohol concentration (BAC). In the great majority of cases, the test will be done with a breath machine. When you go to court, you will find that you have been charged with not just one, but with two crimes.

The first is the so-called "per se" offense: driving while having a BAC of .08% or greater. No one cares whether you were intoxicated or not. All of the evidence could prove that without question you were sober: the crime is your chemical composition, not your condition. And what is the sole source of evidence upon which you will be either convicted or acquitted? A machine.

The second charge you are facing is "driving under the influence of alcohol" ("DUI"), or in some states, "driving while intoxicated" ("DWI") or "operating under the influence" ("OUI"). They are basically the same thing. In each case, however, the prosecution can prove you were under the influence of alcohol by offering the results of the same breath test into evidence — and the jury will be instructed that the defendant is rebuttably presumed to be guilty unless he can prove otherwise.

That’s right: a presumption of guilt. Based upon what? Again, a machine. So it all comes down to a machine. Your innocence or guilt depends largely if not entirely upon what a machine says. Maybe we should take a closer look at this "breath machine"….

Sometimes generically referred to as "Breathalyzers" after the original Breathalyzer 900, today there are a number of makes and models manufactured by different companies. For many years, the most popular of these has been the "Intoxilyer 5000", manufactured by CMI, Inc. How reliable is this machine at measuring alcohol in a person’s blood by measuring his breath? How accurate?

Well, what do the manufacturers think? How confidant are they that these devices are reliable enough to send a man to jail? Let’s take a look at their manufacturer’s warranty. The following is from their manual’s "Statement of Warranty":

"CMI, Inc., a subsidiary of MPD, Inc., warrants that each new product will be free from defects in material and workmanship, under normal use and service, for a period of one year from the date of delivery to the first user-purchaser…."

One year? These things are warranted for only one year? Model 5000s are commonly found in service at law enforcement agencies for ten years or more. What if there’s a problem with the machine requiring repair by the manufacturer?

"Repaired components are warranted for a period of 90 days from the date of repair."

90 days? The toaster in my kitchen has a better warranty. But the "warranty" continues:

"There are no other warranties expressed or implied, including but not limited to, any implied warranties of merchantibility or fitness for a particular purpose…."

What? CMI, Inc., says this machine is not warranted for any "particular purpose" — which, for the Intoxilyzer 5000, is measuring alcohol on the breath. So they don’t guarantee that it will measure breath alcohol? And this, the law says, is "proof beyond a reasonable doubt"?

Ok, let’s take a look at another of these machines which determine guilt or innocence: the BAC DataMaster, manufactured by National Patent Analytical Sytems, Inc. Their warranty, at least, is for two years –but with that same refusal to guarantee that the thing measures breath alcohol:

"There are no other warranties expressed or implied including, but not limited to, any implied warranty of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose."

And, as with CMI, Inc., there is the added warning that "In no event shall National Patent Analytical Systems be liable for any loss of profit or any indirect or consequential damages arising out of any such defect in material or workmanship". In other words, if you end up going to jail because of defects in our machines, you can’t sue us.

The simple fact is that, for perhaps the first time in our history, we are convicting people of crimes — beyond a resonable doubt — based entirely upon what a machine says. Are we that sure of their accuracy? Are the manufacturers?

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