In my last post (Hundreds of DUI Convictions in Doubt: Inaccurate Breathalyzers), I featured a news story about widespread breathalyzer failures in San Francisco. I also mentioned that this was not an isolated situation, pointing out massive failures of the devices in other cities across the country.
In a follow-up yesterday, the San Francisco Chronicle has confirmed this:
SF Not Alone in DUI Test Flaw, Dropped Convictions
San Francisco, CA. Mar. 12 – In facing the possible loss of hundreds of drunken-driving convictions because of a testing controversy, San Francisco is not alone.
District Attorney George Gascón said last week that his office was reviewing cases going back to 2006 because of possible police mismanagement of the breath-test devices used to measure drivers’ blood-alcohol levels. Public Defender Jeff Adachi said as many as 1,000 convictions could eventually be overturned.
Other jurisdictions, including Santa Clara County and Ventura County, have had to drop some drunken-driving convictions because of problems with faulty or mishandled breath-test devices – although fears of mass dismissals have proved unfounded.
San Francisco’s troubles began when attorneys with the public defender’s office discovered suspicious bookkeeping in the Police Department’s accuracy testing of the devices. The entries suggested that officers weren’t conducting the checks at all.
A similar situation in Philadelphia last year resulted in the district attorney offering new trials to nearly 1,500 people who had been convicted of driving under the influence over the previous 15 months.
Police there revealed in March 2011 that four breath-test devices – different models from those used in San Francisco – had not been properly calibrated, said Tasha Jamerson, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office…
Officers in the field there ask suspected drunken drivers to exhale into portable testing devices to estimate whether a driver’s blood alcohol level is above the legal limit of 0.08 percent. In April 2010, Santa Clara County authorities learned that condensation was building up in the device, the Alco-Sensor V, that San Jose and Palo Alto police had been using for nearly all of 2010, resulting in erratic readings.
The device was a newer model of the Alco-Sensor IV that San Francisco police and many other Bay Area law enforcement agencies use…
Ventura County dismissed at least 64 cases in 2011 because of the same condensation glitch, said Senior Deputy District Attorney Stacy Ratner.
Intoximeters, the Missouri company that makes the Alco-Sensor devices, did not respond to requests for comments…
Although the news story only mentioned California counties, as well as Philadelphia, the widespread unreliability of these machines — upon which criminal convictions are based — goes far beyond that state. See, for example, Attorney General Finds Widespread Breathalyzer Inaccuracies: Police Shut Down All Machines, 400 Wrongly Convicted in Washington: Faulty Breathalyzers and More Massive Breathalyzer Failures.
For a confidential government document verifying the unreliability, see Report: Breathalyzers Outdated, Unstable, Unreliable.
(Thanks to Andre Campos.)