Monthly Archives: January 2019
The topic is nothing new to this blog; breathalyzer results used to try to convict people of a DUI are thrown out because of their lack of reliability.
The latest incident comes from Massachusetts where a judge ruled that breathalyzers in over 400 DUI cases must be thrown out until the machine that police in that state use to determine a driver’s blood alcohol content can be proven as accurate.
In the consolidated case, Judge Robert Brennan found that the Office of Alcohol Testing had failed to release evidence to DUI defense attorneys that breathalyzers used in their client’s cases were inaccurate. As a result, the head of the office was fired, the results of the breathalyzers were thrown out, and prosecutors are scrambling to find additional evidence to prove the intoxication of those drivers.
According to Massachusetts law, if someone refuses a breathalyzer, their refusal cannot be revealed in a DUI trial against that person as a means to avoid prejudicing a judge or jury. When that happens, prosecutors are forced to rely on law enforcement officers’ testimony that a person was intoxicated based on their observations.
“I expect to see more of an emphasis on observations of the subject, both at the scene and at the station while being booked and in custody,” said Bellingham Police Chief Gerard Daigle. “Recognition of the signs and symptoms of impairment will be crucial. It’s similar to what is needed if the tests were refused.”
Additionally, Judge Brennan said that the Office of Alcohol Testing must undergo significant reform including providing additional training for staff and instituting internal regulations for complying with discovery requests in criminal cases, including DUI cases, similar to those that are followed by the state police’s crime management unit.
“Right now, there’s serious cause to doubt the scientific results,” said Massachusetts attorney, Daniel Cappetta. “Judge Brennan has rightly decided that these tests shouldn’t be used to take anyone’s liberty.”
The Office of Alcohol Testing is planning on applying for nation accreditation by August of this year and district attorney offices will be monitoring the office’s progress.
“We are reviewing yesterday’s ruling,” said District Attorney, Marian Ryan. “Moving forward, we will continue to be in contact with OAT regarding the date for their compliance with the judge’s order.”
This is not the first time Massachusetts has dealt with issues of faulty breathalyzers. In fact, this is not the first time Judge Brennan has overseen DUI cases dealing with the reliability of the state’s use of breathalyzers.
In September of last year, I wrote Tens of Thousands of DUI Cases Affected by Tainted Breathalyzers in Massachusetts where the same Judge Brennan, who was presiding over proceedings challenging the reliability of breathalyzers since 2015, was provided with an agreement that prosecutors were not use breathalyzer results dating back to 2011. The reason was due to the lack of proper calibration of the breathalyzers since the state purchased them in 2011.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, drivers should never submit to a pre-arrest breathalyzer and they should only submit to required chemical test breathalyzer (rather than a blood test) if they’re unsure whether their blood alcohol content was above or below the legal limit. The reason for this is precisely because they are inaccurate. Whether through inherent mechanical flaws or less-than-trustworthy toxicology labs, if a driver’s blood alcohol content is slightly above the legal limit, it is easier for defense attorneys to argue that there’s a chance that the driver’s blood alcohol content is actually below the legal limit.
The Oregon State Police crime lab is behind on its testing, way behind, and it’s affecting DUI cases in the state.
The chemical tests for motorists accused of driving under the influence has a backlog of about 14 months. While that is bad, it’s better than some departments within the lab such as property crimes, where they no longer process DNA for property crimes such as theft to allow more focus on other cases, such as sexual assault. This is problematic since the statute of limitations (the time period for which a prosecutor can file a criminal case) on a case might, and in many cases will run, without having the evidence tested.
Oregon’s Linn County District Attorney’s office handled more than 500 DUI cases in 2018. Alcohol related cases can use breathalyzers as evidence without the need for a crime lab. However, not all of the DUI cases that the DA’s office handles are alcohol related. About half of the DUI cases in Linn County involve other drugs where levels are determined by urine tests. The current backlog of 14 months is still within the standard statute of limitations of two years, so cases can still likely be filed. In its current state and with crime never ceasing, the crime lab is undoubtedly overworked, understaffed, and limited with what they can do. Therefore, the statute of limitations for some of those DUI’s may too come and go, which is unfair to both the prosecutors as well as the accused.
Although representatives of the District Attorney’s office were unaware of any cases directly being impacted by the turnaround time of the lab, Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson said, “The turnaround time for the lab is impacting our office because we’re having to wait for extended periods of time. But it’s critical for me to note that the [Oregon State police] crime lab, no matter how well they do their job, they have a finite capacity. and when that finite capacity is exceeded, the impact for us is the delay on having the lab work done.”
However, Haroldson also went on to say that, although a statute of limitation may not have run, suspects should not have to wait that long to be formally charged.
“Part of seeking justice is doing all we can to make sure that our systems are fair to everyone, including the accused. Long delays do not represent the best work that we can do if we were properly funded,” said Haroldson.
It was also noted that the testing delays can also lead to increased risks to the public as motorists who were suspected of driving under the influence will not have their licenses suspended until the charges have at least been filed. One county had at least four drivers who were arrested twice for DUI during 2018 and whose cases were yet to be settled as their lab results were still pending months later.
With Oregon’s legalization of recreational marijuana in 2015, the number of requests for toxicology tests have only continued to increase. As Oregon’s population also continues to rise, it can be anticipated that the growth in demand for the lab’s services will also continue to rise. Although science and technology have evolved to make some of the processes go much smoother and faster, toxicology result turnaround times still take much longer than our TV crime solvers make us believe. What’s more, costs are still too high to effectively rely on outsourcing as part of the solution.
Amanda Dalton, a lobbyist on behalf of the Oregon District Attorney Association, says that the association is hoping to change the backlog situation through current legislation.
“We believe delayed testing is a crisis as it relates to DUI prosecution and overall community safety and that [the Oregon State Police] is doing all they can with the resources they currently have,” said Dalton.
Although the Oregon District Attorneys Association realizes that the legislation currently proposed will not solve the problem, they maintain hope that it will, at a minimum, start the conversation that will eventually lead to the appropriate funding to fix the issues.
The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear and decide a case that challenges a Wisconsin law that allows law enforcement to withdraw blood from an unconscious driver that they suspect was driving under the influence.
The case stems from the 2013 arrest of Gerald Mitchell in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin. After receiving reports that the driver of a gray van may have been intoxicated, officer Alex Jaeger pulled Mitchell over. A pre-arrest breathalyzer revealed that Mitchell had a blood alcohol content of 0.24 percent, three times the legal limit. Officer Jaeger then arrested Mitchell and drove him to a hospital to withdraw a blood sample.
By the time Mitchell and officer Jaeger had arrived at the hospital, Mitchell had lost consciousness and could not be woken. While at the hospital, Mitchell appeared to be too intoxicated to answer questions from a blood-withdrawal consent form. Notwithstanding his unconscious state, blood was taken from Mitchell without a warrant and without his expressed consent.
The blood test revealed that Mitchell’s blood alcohol content was 0.22 percent.
At trial, Mitchell challenged the results arguing that the warrantless blood withdrawal amounted to an unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the 4th Amendment. Mitchell’s suppression motion, however, was denied and the jury convicted him of driving under the influence.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court took up the case to address whether implied consent under “implied consent laws” (laws that require a person to submit to a breath or a blood test if they are legally allowed to drive and if law enforcement has probable cause to believe a person is driving under the influence) is constitutionally sufficient to allow a blood withdraw without expressed consent while a driver is unconscious.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court held that, by virtue of Mitchell’s mere possession of a driver’s license, Mitchell had already impliedly provided consent to allow law enforcement to withdraw blood if law enforcement had the probable cause to arrest him on suspicion of driving under the influence. To boot, the court concluded that officer Jaeger had the probable cause to arrest Mitchell on suspicion of driving under the influence, and therefore law enforcement could withdraw blood from Mitchell while he was unconscious.
In its opinion, the court stated, “…we conclude that consent given by drivers whose conduct falls within the parameters of [Wisconsin’s Implied Consent law], is constitutionally sufficient consent to withstand Fourth Amendment scrutiny…” Furthermore, the court concluded that Mitchell, having consumed alcohol to the point of unconsciousness, “…forfeited all opportunity, including the statutory opportunity…to withdraw his consent previously given; and therefore, [Wisconsin’s Implied Consent law] applied, which under the totality of circumstances reasonably permitted drawing Mitchell’s blood. Accordingly, we affirm Mitchell’s convictions.”
The United States Supreme Court is set to hear Mitchell’s case and it could be decided by late June of this year.
In 2016, the United States Supreme Court ruled that it was lawful for states to impose penalties for drunk driving suspects who refused to take a breath test under the state’s Implied Consent law. However, the Court went on to conclude that while their “prior opinions have referred approvingly to the general concept of implied consent laws,” that “there must be a limit to the consequences to which motorists may be deemed to have consented to only those conditions that are ‘reasonable’ in that they have a ‘nexus’ to the privilege of driving.” Thus, Implied Consent laws that punish people who refuse a blood test are too intrusive and, therefore, unconstitutional.
“[If] criminal penalties for refusal are unlawful because they too heavily burden the exercise of the Fourth Amendment right to refuse a blood test, can it really be that the state can outright abolish the very same right?” Mitchell’s attorneys asked.
Mitchell’s attorney’s question is a valid and one that I hope the Court concludes the answer is “no.”
I know I complain a lot about the DUI laws here in California. There is much improvement to be made with regard to how law enforcement enforces drunk driving laws and how prosecutors prosecute drunk driving laws. Having said all that, at least we’re not in Canada.
Section 253 of the Criminal Code of Canada was effectively changed in December of 2018 which gave law enforcement the authority to seek breath samples from people who might have been driving under the influence of alcohol.
Here in California, an officer must have probable cause that a person was under the influence before they could arrest them on suspicion of a DUI. Only then was a person required to provide either a breath or a blood sample. Prior to that arrest, any breath sample provided was voluntary on behalf of the driver.
Under Canada’s new law, police officers no longer need to have “reasonable suspicion” that a person had consumed alcohol to force that person to take a breathalyzer. Police could demand breath samples from people at their home, in a bar, or at a restaurant. If the person refuses, they could be arrested and charged, and if convicted, can face a fine and a driving suspension.
Notwithstanding the potential to arrest a person who was not driving under the influence of alcohol, but rather lawfully drinking in their home or elsewhere, supporters of the law point to the use of another “tool” in combating drunk driving.
“Police miss a lot of impaired drivers,” said Toronto police spokesman Sgt. Brett Moore. “It’s just a really good, strong message that there’s a real high likelihood that if you get stopped by police, you’re going to get asked to submit to a breath test.”
Not surprisingly, Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada also supports the new law asserting that mandatory alcohol screening will make the roads safer.
Don’t get me wrong, I too support making roads safer, but not at the risk of arresting, charging, and punishing people for doing something perfectly lawful. I’m not the only one.
“It’s ridiculous, it’s basically criminalizing you having a drink at your kitchen table,” Paul Doroshenko, a Vancouver criminal defense lawyer who specializes in impaired driving cases, told Global News. “If you start to drink after you get home, the police show up at your door, they can arrest you, detain you, take you back to the (police station) and you can be convicted because your blood alcohol concentration was over 80 milligrams (per 100 millilitres of blood) in the two hours after you drove.”
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association also expressed concern about Canada’s new law saying that mandatory alcohol testing will disproportionally affect racial minorities who might be unfairly targeted by law enforcement.
Notwithstanding its problems, Minister of Justice and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raylould believes that the law with withstand judicial scrutiny when it is challenged in court and is in support of the new law.
“Impaired driving is the leading criminal cause of death and injury in Canada,” said Wilson-Raybould in December. “I believe these reforms will result in fewer road deaths and fewer Canadian families devastated by the effects of an impaired driver. This is one of the most significant changes to the laws related to impaired driving in more than 40 years and is another way that we are modernizing the criminal justice system.”
It could take years for legal challenges to make their way through Canada’s appeal courts and even the Supreme Court of Canada. Until then, people, all people in Canada, are subject to a law that could find them in legal trouble even though they’ve done nothing wrong.
During this past New Year’s holiday, the Los Angeles Police Department utilized a new portable oral test that is able to check for the presence of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, and other drugs in a person’s system. In their attempt to start aggressively enforcing impaired driving laws, they decided to use this test at New Years’ checkpoints even though the test had only been used about 50 times prior. Prosecutors hope that this eight-minute oral fluids test will eventually become an effective indicator of impairment of drugs, though they have yet to use any results from these tests as evidence in their cases.
Although this test does have the capability of checking for the presence of THC, which is the component most identified with the use of marijuana and which causes the psychoactive effects of marijuana, it does not test for impairment from THC. However, since the legalization of recreational marijuana in several states, experts have struggled to determine an appropriate level of use that would consistently label a person to be “impaired.”
It is undoubtedly important for law makers to be presented with research that helps to determine at what level of THC presence that will cause a person’s impairment. Without this, the current legal terminology of “under the influence” is extremely subjective. Unlike the research with alcohol that determined that there is a strong correlation between impairment and blood alcohol levels higher than 0.08, the research with THC levels are still inconclusive. Both neuroscientists and pharmacologists are having difficulties determining to what extent the drug can impair a person’s ability to drive as well as an appropriate way to measure it. Private companies are currently working on a breathalyzer to test for impairment similar to that used in alcohol related cases, however, the results are still not as definitive as the tests used to determine impairment of alcohol.
In the interim, the Legislature’s Special Commission on Operating Under the Influence and Impaired Driving is recommending mandatory drug testing for stoned drivers under the threat of license suspension. Law enforcement insists that this is the best way to keep stoned drivers off the road.
The threat of losing one’s license may be an effective way to keep stoned drivers off the streets, but at this point in time, it also comes with a multitude of issues, including those that make the tests unconstitutional. For one, it is still unconstitutional to force a blood draw or saliva test without a warrant.
An additional issue is that unlike alcohol that metabolizes fairly quickly and at a measurable rate, THC can last in one’s body for days, even weeks. The “recommended” tests may undoubtedly accurately measure the amount of THC in the body, but there is still no measurement for impairment. ACLU Field Director Matt Allen, who is a member of the special commission stated, “We want to ensure that if motorists are faced with penalties such as losing their license for not taking a drug test that that test is scientifically proven to measure impairment.” However, he was the lone “no” vote on the recommendation.
The scientific community is undoubtedly working on the answer. Hopefully sooner rather than later, the public will be presented with a fairly accurate level of what impairment under the influence of marijuana means. Without it, it is not only law enforcement who is at a loss for efficiently assessing impairment, but all responsible users who lack a point of reference of this newly legal drug to make sure that they are not inadvertently putting the public in danger. Until then, we cannot arbitrarily punish people who have THC in their system, but are not impaired by it.