Archive for May 10th, 2005

Denial of Independent Blood Test

Tuesday, May 10th, 2005

When the police administer a breathalyzer, the suspect’s breath sample is analyzed — and then destroyed by purging it into the air. Although it is easy and inexpensive to save the sample so that it could later be independently analyzed by the defense, the U.S. Supreme Court in California v. Trombetta ruled that there is no right to this. (See "Why Do Police Destroy the Evidence in DUI Cases?".) Recognizing that an accused should have some minimal rights even in a DUI case, many states have enacted laws requiring the police to advise the suspect that he has the right to have an independent blood sample drawn so that it may be later analyzed and compared to the breath test results. California’s Vehicle Code Section 23614 is an example:

(a) ….a person who chooses to submit to a breath test shall be advised before or after the test that the breath testing equipment does not retain any sample of the breath and that no breath sample will be available after the test which could be analyzed later…

(b) The person shall also be advised that, because no breath sample is retained, the person will be given an opportunity to provide a blood or urine sample that will be retained at no cost to the person so that there will be something retained that may be subsequently analyzed for the alcohol content of the person’s blood. If the person completes a breath test and wishes to provide a blood or urine sample to be retained, the sample shall be collected and retained in the same manner as if the person had chosen a blood or urine test initially. [italics added]

Sounds fair. Except officers don’t like handling a suspect’s urine or spending an hour or so finding a blood technician to draw a sample. Result: this law is commonly ignored by the police. (Some DUI report forms contain a place for the officer to indicate that he advised the suspect of the right to an independent test, and it is commonly checked off — and ignored.) So what can a defendant do if this legal right is violated? Well, the statute clearly says "shall" advise and collect: it is mandatory, not optional. It would seem to follow that there would be some legal sanction for a willful refusal to follow this law — the only meaningful one being suppression of the breath test. Wrong. Remember: This is a DUI case we’re dealing with. If you look closely, another little provision at the end of California’s statute adds the following:

(d) No failure or omission to advise pursuant to this section shall affect the admissibility of any evidence of the alcohol content of the blood of the person arrested.

Cute, no? The law gives you a "right", and then makes it unenforceable. It is, as we lawyers say, "a right without a remedy". And, of course, since there are no consequences for ignoring this advisement of the right to an independent test, most officers continue to ignore the law. Practically speaking, then, officers do not have to follow the law and advise the suspect of his right to an independent test. There are some court decisions, however, which seem to say that interfering with attempts by the arrested person to have blood drawn may be grounds for suppression of the breath test. See, e.g., In re Martin, 58 Cal.2d 509. And many states will suppress breath test results if the police refuse to permit the suspect to obtain a blood sample. In State v. George, 754 P.2d 460, for example, the Kansas court ruled that breath results should have been suppressed where the arresting officer refused a suspect’s request for an independent test because of the time required to transport him to a hospital and find a physician.