Inaccurate Breathalyzers Cast Doubt on 1,147 DUI Cases in Philadelphia

Posted by Lawrence Taylor on March 25th, 2011

As regular readers of this blog are painfully aware, over the past 7 years I’ve posted ad nauseum about the inaccuracy and unreliability of breath machines used in drunk driving cases.  See, for example, How Breathalyzers Work – and Why They Don’t, Breath-Alcohol Testing: "State of the Art"?Report: Breathalyzers Outdated, Unreliable, Unstable and "Close Enough for Government Work".  In fact, a few days ago I wrote about the Washington D.C. Attorney General throwing out dozens of DUI cases and investigating hundreds of others because of breathalyzer accuracy issues.  See Attorney General Finds Widespread Breathalyzer Inaccuracies; Police Shut Down All Machines.

For those doubters out there who thought this was just an isolated instance, consider today’s news:
  

Philadelphia To Review All Breathalyzer-DUI Cases From 15 Months 

Philadelphia, PA.  March 25 — A day after Philadelphia police announced that miscalibrated breathalyzers had compromised 1,147 drunken-driving cases, District Attorney Seth Williams  declared he would conduct a wholesale review of all DUI cases during the 15 months in question.

Philadelphia police file 8,000 to 10,000 drunken-driving cases each year, so the review announced Thursday by Williams’ office will involve a staggering amount of work that will take months to complete. 

Deputy District Attorney Edward McCann, chief of the Criminal Division, decided to launch the review, said Williams’ spokeswoman, Tasha Jamerson. Assistant District Attorney Lynn Nichols will lead a team of prosecutors and staff that will examine the cases from September 2009 to November 2010.

McCann is also implementing training on DUI cases for prosecutors that will emphasize recognizing potential problems with the Breathalyzer devices.

Finally, Jamerson said, the District Attorney’s Office will start doing its own calibration checks on Breathalyzers rather than depend solely on police certification.

The real bill will be some time in coming.

Besides the cost of reviewing thousands of DUI prosecutions and likely retrying some, the police and city could face civil lawsuits by people wrongly convicted – some of whom may have lost their driver’s license, their job, or their freedom.

Though police officials have a list of about 400 people affected by the miscalibrated machines, Jamerson said Williams had decided a full review was needed.

Though defense lawyers specializing in DUI cases said only two of the Police Department’s eight Breathalyzers had proved inaccurate, police said Wednesday that the total was four. Some court-system sources said that number was likely to increase.


Thousands of citizens are convicted every day of driving with a blood-alcohol level of .08% — based entirely upon the readings of these machines.  In a "trial by machine", the results of these devices legally establish a rebuttable presumption of guilt and are considered proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  See Whatever Happened to the Presumption of Innocence? and Trial by Machine


(Thanks to Ari Weiner.)
 

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