Archive for November, 2004

Convicting the “Average” DUI Suspect

Thursday, November 11th, 2004

One of the greatest sources of error in breath-alcohol testing is the consistently recurring fallacy that the individual tested is perfectly average in certain critical physiological traits. Put another way, obtaining an accurate blood-alcohol reading in a DUI case is completely dependent on the validity of a number of assumptions. Unfortunately for the person being tested, these assumptions are usually incorrect: The person tested is rarely “average” in even one of these critical characteristics, let alone in all of them.

For example, all breath testing devices depend on the assumption that the ratio between alcohol in the exhaled breath and alcohol in the blood is 1 to 2100. In fact, the machine is designed to produce a reading based on that assumption; the accuracy of the reading is directly tied to the accuracy of the presumption. Yet, the actual ratio in any given individual can vary from less than 1:1300 to more than 1:3000. So a DUI suspect with a true blood-alcohol level of .08 but a breath-to-blood ratio of, say, 1:1700 would have a .10 reading on an “accurate” breath testing instrument.

Put simply, these machines do not test individuals. Rather, they test the same “average suspect” over and over again, but using the individual subject’s breath.

Another example of the assumption of “averageness” can be found in urinalysis. When a DUI suspect’s urine is analyzed for blood-alcohol, a presumption exists that there are 1.3 parts of alcohol in the bladder’s urine for every 1 part of alcohol in the blood. This 1:1.3 ratio is as fallacious as the 1:2100 ratio’that is, it is based entirely on the ratio found in the average person. In fact, however, the actual ratio found in any given individual can vary greatly. And as the ratio is in error, so will be the final blood-alcohol reading.

Another example of this constant reliance on averages shows itself when the prosecutor in a DUI trial offers evidence of so-called “retrograde extrapolation”, or guessing backwards. The blood-alcohol level at the time of testing is not relevant to the charge, of course, and so the state will offer evidence to show what the level was when the defendant was driving. This is commonly done by “extrapolating” backward’that is, computing the earlier blood-alcohol level by estimating how much alcohol had been eliminated or “burned off” in the period between driving and testing. But this requires two assumptions: The blood-alcohol level was declining and the rate of elimination is known. This second assumption involves the further assumption that the “burn-off” rate was .015 percent per hour (sometimes the assumed rate is .02 percent). How does the prosecution know that the defendant was eliminating (assuming he was eliminating rather than absorbing) at that rate and not at .005 percent or .3 percent? Quite simply, the prosecution does not know: It merely assumes that the defendant eliminates at the average rate. And, of course, error in such an assumption translates into error in the extrapolation.

This ever-present “average person” in the DUI arena is not limited to chemical analysis. We even find him with the arresting officer in the field. When the officer administers the “nystagmus'’ test (“follow my finger with your eyes”) as part of the battery of field sobriety tests, he operates on the assumption that the suspect is “Mr. Average.” The officer has been trained to “read” at what angle the suspect’s eyes begin jerking. If it begins before 45 degrees, the suspect fails. And where does the magic figure of 45 come from? The average person.

Don Nichols, a pioneer among DUI defense attorneys, would point out to juries that his client is female, Chinese and deceased’despite obvious evidence to the contrary. He then explains that statistically there are more women than men in the world, more Chinese than any other nationality and more dead human beings than living ones. Statistically, then, the average person is female, Chinese and deceased’and so, according to the prosecution, must be his client. He also asks the jury how many of them have 2.3 children’the average in the United States.

So why does the state presume facts that are clearly untrue? Simple. It is convenient: it makes prosecution and conviction much easier.

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The DUI Officer and “Selective Memory”

Sunday, November 7th, 2004

How does a police officer testifying in a drunk driving trial recall every detail of a DUI investigation months earlier?

When an officer stops a motorist and suspects that he may be under the influence of alcohol, he begins to mentally record various observations. Was the driving erratic, and in what way? What was his reaction to the red overhead lights? How did he pull over and park? Was there an odor of alcohol on the driver’s breath, and how strong? Could it have come from the passenger? Was the driver’s face flushed, eyes bloodshot, speech thick and slurred? How did he respond to questions and directions? What were his answers to questions such as "Where are you going? What time is it? Have you been drinking? What? When? Where? How much?" Did he have a current license and registration? Did he fumble with his wallet pulling out his license? Stagger when stepping from the car? What did the passenger say? How did she appear? And so on.

Then there are the DUI field sobriety tests. How did he perform in the walk-and-turn test? Did he understand the instructions? Did he start before I told him to? How many steps out? How did he turn? How many steps back? Which, if any, of the 18 steps were off the line? Where did they land? Which, if any, were not heel-to-toe? Was he using his arms for balance? Did he say anything during the test?

And the other three or four drunk driving field tests…

In the "horizontal gaze nystagmus" ("Follow my pen with your eyes without moving your head") test, was there "smooth pursuit" of the right eyeball? What did it look like? How many times was it given? Did "onset" of nystagmus occur before 45 degrees? At what degree? Was I able to see the white of the eye at the extreme range of the eye? Was there "distinct nystagmus" at this extreme? And what about all these observations in the left eye?

And maybe two or three other field sobriety tests.

And then the arrest and the breath test at the station: What was the procedure used to administer the test? What messages were displayed by the machine in preparation? Did the suspect say anything about a medical condition? How many breath samples were captured? Was there a blank test run before each sample test? What were the readings of the blanks? Of the suspect’s two samples? And so on….

In other words, there are a vast number of things to remember about what happened in the course of a properly conducted drunk driving investigation — and in dozens of other investigations. And the officer may have to testify some day in trial about all of these things. This has to be done from memory and under oath. How does he do it?

Well, typically the officer sits down an hour or two after the arrest and writes out a "DUI arrest report". This has to be from short-term memory (few officers attempt to write down notes in the field: it is usually dark, one hand is tied up with a flashlight and police policy requires that the "gun hand" be free at all times). This report may be only a couple of pages, or it may run to five or six pages. And this creates two basic problems….

First, how can the officer remember an hour or two later everything that happened? Imagine just one of the field sobriety tests, for example. In the walk-and-turn test, there are 18 steps — 9 out, 9 back. Most DUI reports have diagrams for the tests; in the walk-and-turn, there will usually be two arrowed lines, with the officer placing circles for the right foot and triangles for the left foot for each step on each of the two out-and-back lines: 18 circles and triangles. How is this officer able to recall an hour or two later each of 18 steps and exactly where each landed in relation to the line, at what angle and whether heel-to-toe? And this is just one test. And what about the driving pattern, the symptoms, the defendant’s statements, his conduct, and all of the other details?

Second, how can the officer recall three or four months later in trial everything that happened? He can’t just read from the report: He has to testify to what he knows — that is, to what he independently remembers happened. But here the law permits him an "out": He can "refresh his recollection" by reading the report after he is asked a question. Then he can testify with a newly "refreshed" memory — in reality, to what he wrote in the report. In most trials, the officer has also "refreshed his recollection" just before testifying, and/or does so repeatedly during his testimony.

Problem: The report only contains incriminating facts.

The officer was gathering evidence against the suspect: he only wrote down what he saw and heard that pointed to the defendant’s GUILT. He did not bother to record facts which pointed to the defendant’s innocence. He did not, for example, write down that the defendant had no trouble maintaining his balance or that his eyes were not bloodshot. In other words, in trial he is incapable of testifying to anything that indicated the defendant may not have been under the influence of alcohol. No matter how honest the officer is in his testimony, he simply cannot "refresh his memory" about things that happened but which are not in the report. And there will be little if anything in that report which will give "the other side" of the story.

Put another way, the most important witness in the trial is mentally incapable of recalling any evidence which may point to the defendant’s innocence.

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

Friday, 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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Whatever Happened to the Presumption of Innocence?

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2004

In most countries of the world, an accusation by the State forces the accused to prove himself innocent. In America, however, the presumption of innocence has always been a fundamental part of our rights as a free people. This basic protection against the power of the government has been recognized as flowing from the 5th, 6th and 14th Amendments to our Constitution. As the United States Supreme Court has said, "The principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law." Coffin v. U.S., 156 U.S. 432 (1895).

So what happened to this presumption of innocence in a drunk driving case? Is this yet another example of "the DUI exception to the Constitution"? Let’s take a look at how our DUI laws have slowly eroded this fundamental right….

Let’s assume you have been arrested for drunk driving, and a Breathalyzer gave a reading of .09% blood-alcohol concentration (BAC). You will probably be charged with two crimes: (1) driving under the influence of alcohol, and (2) driving with over .08% BAC. Let’s look at the .08% charge first.

The .08% offense depends entirely upon the results of the breath machine (often called a "Breathalyzer", although there are many makes and models). These machines are notorously unreliable for any number of reasons. But a funny thing happens when your attorney tries to bring out those reasons for the jury. He tries to point out, for example, that the Breathalyzer computes the results by presuming that the defendant has a "partition ratio" of 2100:1 (the ratio of alcohol in the breath to the alcohol in the blood) — but that this is only an average: the defendant’s ratio is much lower, so the .09% reading should actually be .07%. However, the judge stops him: the law presumes that all men are average — even if they are not.

In fact, the Supreme Court of California has specifically ruled that such scientific facts are irrelevant. People v. Bransford, 884 P.2d 70 (1994). The Court justified its ruling in a rather frank — and amazing — justification: "It (.08%) will increase the likelihood of convicting such a driver, because the prosecution need not prove actual impairment…Adjudication of such criminal charges will also require fewer legal resources, because fewer legal issues will arise. And individuals prosecuted under such a statute will be less likely to contest the charges." In other words, ignoring scientific facts makes it easier to convict.

What about the officer who gave the breath test? Surely, we can question his experience and the way he administered the breath test. And this raises a prosecutrial favorite: the "Offical Duty Presumption". The California Evidence Code (sec. 664) puts it very simply: It is presumed that official duty has been regularly performed." Period. That’s it: Since it was the officer’s official duty to give the test, the law presumes he was qualified and did it correctly. And the burden is on the defendant to prove he didn’t. Interesting twist on the presumption of innocence, huh?

Well, so much for the .08% charge. At least the defendant is presumed innocent of the DUI charge, right? Wrong. The laws of most states create a presumption of guilt: if the Breathalyzer reads .08% BAC or higher, the jury will be instructed that the defendant is legally presumed to be under the influence of alcohol. That’s right: the defendant is presumed guilty. This is called a "rebuttable presumption" — that is, the defendant can try to rebut this presumption with other evidence. Put another way, he is presumed guilty and the burden is on him to prove his innocence. Just like in third world countries.

Ok, but the law says it’s illegal to have .08% BAC when driving — not when tested an hour later at the police station. If, for example, a person has a drink or two before driving, the alcohol will not be absorbed into the system for an hour or so: it will not be in his system while driving, but will be reaching peak BAC levels when tested an hour later at the station. So how does the prosecution prove BAC at the time of driving?

Easy: the law presumes the BAC is the same. Let’s take a look at California’s fairly typical law: "In any prosecution…it is a rebuttable presumption that the person had 0.08 percent or more, by weight, of alcohol in his or her blood at the time of driving the vehicle if the person had 0.08 percent or more, by weight, of alcohol in his or her breath at the time of the performance of a chemical test within thre hours of the driving." Well, now, that’s really amazing. The Legislature simply passed a law against scientific truth. We can absolutely say, with scientific certainty, that the BAC will NOT be the same for three hours after the test.

So much for the "presumption of innocence" in a DUI case….

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