Monthly Archives: January 2020
You had that extra glass of wine right before the dessert course, but was it too much? Do you make a trip to the bathroom to see if you can make it there in a straight line? Stare at yourself in the mirror to see if you can determine if your eyes are glazed over? Or perhaps attempt to text a friend to see if you can still string together a coherent sentence? Whatever your previous methods may have been, in the near future, it may be as simple as wearing a wristband.
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have been working on a wearable device that can track the wearer’s level of inebriation and they believe it is showing some promise.
The wearable wrist devices have begun to be put to the test, and current data is showing that they can fairly accurately measure how much alcohol a person drank and how intoxicated they may be.
The wristbands have sensors built in that collect raw transdermal alcohol concentration (TAC) data which essentially measures how much ethanol is in your sweat on your skin. The data is then sent to an app via Bluetooth and a graph to shows the amount of alcohol in the wearer’s system. Another version of the wristband works with Apple Watches by swapping the bands with a sensor-equipped band.
The system is not yet perfect as it is no surprise that TAC is not quite as accurate as law enforcement-used blood tests in determining someone’s blood alcohol content (BAC). Studies maintain that the most accurate way to determine the amount of alcohol in one’s system is through a BAC reading from a breathalyzer, blood, or urine test.
Researchers are working to perfect the correlation between the TAC numbers taken from the device and actual BAC. The current data shows that the numbers are close, but aren’t identical. The hope is that by being able to find an accurate correlation between the data points, they will be able to offer a less invasive method of blood alcohol content testing.
One of the issues that researchers are still trying to work out is the initial time lag of the device. It currently takes between 24 and 30 minutes for the readings to start from the start time of drinking. Medical journals have pointed out that “More reliable and robust prototypes will be required. Also, field testing in large and diverse groups of people drinking variable alcohol doses in real-world conditions will be necessary for comprehensive assessment of the relationship between transdermal and blood alcohol concentrations.”
It will be interesting to see how quickly the analysis can be processed with the progress of science. It will also be interesting to see if the integration of such products into the mainstream public will help to reduce the incorrect assumption of some drivers believing that they are not impaired and can safely drive themselves and others home. Or perhaps the first official integration will not be to the public at all, but rather in the hands of law enforcement who will start to use a simple touch to quickly and accurately determine a person’s alcohol level.
Sadly, it seems that more and more often we are seeing instances of school bus drivers being arrested for driving under the influence with children in their buses (California School Bus Driver DUI on the Job, Boy on Top of Santa’s Nice List After Calling 9-1-1 on DUI School Bus Driver).
According to a Stateline investigation, across the nation, bus drivers have been cited or arrested for alleged impaired driving in 38 states with a total of over 1,620 affected students since 2015. Despite these numbers, school transportation groups point out that buses are still the safest way for students to get to school and that none of these incidents resulted in fatalities with a majority of the students uninjured.
What is even more surprising after noticing an increase in accident coverage of impaired bus drivers is that the month-long investigation by Stateline revealed that many state agencies don’t collect, aggregate or analyze impaired school bus drivers.
During the course of their investigation, Stateline contacted 268 agencies, covering 50 states and the District of Columbia, ranging from education and transportation departments to state police and court systems. The end result? 11% of all of the agencies contacted were able to come up with any incidents or data.
Some agencies claimed that their data was just not that detailed and were not able to comment on the occupation of the driver reported, others claimed to have found no cases in their databases even though Stateline had evidence on one or more. Many, surprisingly, were not able to do a query at all for such a search.
So perhaps the numbers are not really increasing, but just that such incidents are simply getting wider coverage and thus seemingly increasing.
Being a bus driver is not an easy job. Even before you deal with the screaming, fighting, distracting children on board your vehicle, drivers often have to go through special training, have a commercial driving license, and be able to handle a 33,000 pound vehicle carrying up to 70 students. And yet, they often deal with low pay, split-shifts, and occasionally part-time hours, which can be stressful in its own way.
It doesn’t seem to be just alcohol either. Stateline found that police caught at least 118 drivers across the mainland U.S. and about a third of them involved drugs. Drugs weren’t necessarily of the illegal type either, at least two dozen of the arrested drivers were impaired by drugs prescribed to them by a doctor.
As a commercial vehicle driver, school bus drivers are required by federal regulation to be tested for alcohol and drugs before they are hired and randomly during their employment. A failure of the test may result in the temporary loss of their commercial license.
However, even with all of these seemingly stringent checks in place, how are these drivers getting lost in the shuffle and slipping through the cracks?
Perhaps the lack of tracking by state agencies is exactly the problem. Large school districts sometimes have hundreds of buses on route and it is not feasible to inspect each and every driver before their shift. In rural areas, many bus drivers will park their buses in their own barn, rather than a bus barn, which means that while they are checked in in the morning, no one of a supervisory position is around to see you before you board your vehicle. Thus, theoretically, supervisors are trained to spot signs of alcohol or drug use and they can mandate a drug test if there is “reasonable suspicion” to do so, but if they rarely meet face to face, then perhaps the stringent checks are not so stringent.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the agency in charge of the trucking and bus industry, requires that employers have 25% of their pool of commercial drivers randomly tested for drugs each year and 10% for alcohol, yet audits have shown that there are several school districts are not performing the amount of random testing required by federal law.
Apparently, without state agencies collecting the data connected to this, they can get away without complying, and perhaps this is where we find the real reason why all of a sudden we are feeling like our children are in more danger than we realized. I am sure that none of the drivers are intentionally putting children in danger, and yet the regulations that are there to protect the children do not seem to be actually executed. Without the state agencies realizing that data needs to be collected so that they can realize how big of an issue this may actually be, we may be getting nowhere. Perhaps after all of this, the data shows that it is actually a small blip in the spectrum and our children are perfectly safe. But without regulated and consistent data we may never know.
Although many states have started to legalize the use of recreational cannabis, some still continue to oppose. We have previously covered the difficulties of how to effectively and accurately measure or even quantify impairment with THC levels (see Marijuana Breath Detector). And yet, there are many who refuse to see the importance in exacting the correlation between THC and impairment, and what it means for drivers who may occasionally partake.
Utah State Representative Steve Waldrip (R- Eden), is one of those people. His plan is to introduce a bill that would presume impairment in DUI cases when one has reached or exceeded a specific level of THC in their blood, and “simply mirror what happens with alcohol.” He feels that it is unfair to treat marijuana intoxication as a lesser offense than in the case of intoxication with alcohol. However, his view seems to ignore the fundamental differences between the two substances. In a previous article, we covered the difference between alcohol which is water soluble and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) which is fat soluble and how that affects levels found the blood stream, as well as how that affects the determination of impairment. His approach would completely ignore the scientific differences of these two substances and create a double standard in addition to the already unfair legal standard.
Waldrip’s reaction was mainly based on an accident where a driver, who tested positive for THC, hit a pedestrian on a highway and now faces misdemeanor charges. As a misdemeanor, the charge is punishable by up to six months in jail. Waldrip and the victim’s family felt that the penalty for the charge was too lenient.
According to the police report for the accident, the driver, though tested positive for THC, was driving under the speed limit of 50 mph at the time of the accident, stopped quickly, and attempted to aid. Under current Utah law, when a crash results in a serious injury or death, the offense can be charged as a felony. In this case, due to the contents of the police report, prosecutors were not able to prove impairment as the law requires evidence of impairment beyond blood test results. This was also combined with the fact that the pedestrian was found to have been under the influence of alcohol at the time of the crash with a blood alcohol content of 0.21 percent, over four times the legal limit in Utah.
Waldrip’s argument seems to be a double standard in how alcohol and marijuana are treated, and wants to do away with the impairment standard, ignoring the fact that driving with “any measurable controlled substance or metabolite of a controlled substance” in your blood is a Class B misdemeanor. Given that THC metabolizes much slower than alcohol, this current law is already unfairly skewed for cannabis users. He also conveniently ignores the fact that there are other elements of the current law that can convict without evidence of impairment. Misdemeanor DUI convictions may also trigger, upon a first offense, suspension of the driver’s license and mandatory attendance in an education program; for a second offense, minimum jail time or community service increases from two days to 10 days; and a third offense is a felony. All of these can be triggered without additional evidence of impairment. As an article by Reason pointed out, “That is the real double standard.”
Questions regarding Colorado’s ability to keep up with the flow of DUI blood tests have come to light since the state’s major policy change that could potentially jeopardize cases.
As of July 1, 2019, rather than sending out their blood tests to private labs, the Colorado Bureau of Investigations (CBI) has taken on the workload themselves in their attempt to cut back on spending. Private lab testing costs, at minimum $300, per case. This switch was in attempt to ease financial burdens on the smaller law enforcement agencies and to better collect data regarding marijuana use among motorists. The hope was that the state would be able to gather more information since the smaller agencies who refrained from sending in samples previously due to the cost, would be more likely to send in their data.
In addition to the fear that the CBI will not be able to handle the overflow that would result from the change in policy, there is also concern regarding the effects on the private labs they took work away from.
Back in 2013, when the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment closed its labs due to concerns regarding accuracy, a small private lab called ChemaTox, made its way onto the market and has since handled thousands of cases for the state’s law enforcement. However, when CBI dropped its fees at the start of July, it hit ChemaTox hard. According to its owner Sarah Urfer, the business couldn’t keep up.
“It was never our intention to negatively impact a private business. I’m embarrassed and I’m responsible. Where we failed was to do the stakeholder outreach that I expect our agency to do and I should have done in this case to reach out to ChemaTox,” said John Camper, Director of the CBI.
The loss of business that Urfer and her 25 full-time employees suffered within weeks of the change was significant enough that she felt unable to rebuild, leading her to close within the month.
With one of the labs that handled the workload closed for good, all of the tests that were run by them fell onto the CBI.
As of October of last year, Camper announced that the CBI is doing a good job handling its workload and that they are still operating well within the time limits set for speedy trial requirements. However, it must also be noted that the state budgets that have been sent in by the CBI shows that, while they did not clock in any overtime during the months of June and July, the month of August reported that they worked nearly 160 hours of overtime. Camper has stated that he has no intention of asking the legislature for more funding to handle the workload that has already doubled over the last few months and that they still have open positions to fill that will help to keep the turnaround times low.
Prosecutors are still wary and have warned the CBI that, should the department become overwhelmed, they will have to resort to dropping cases because of the inability of the labs to present evidence that the prosecution needs to move forward. The prosecution uses test results for not only DUI cases, but also cases such as vehicular homicide and murder, and toxicology in its many forms are crucial to such cases. In the case of trial proceedings, the prosecution is also worried about the CBI’s ability to be able to provide experts available for testimony at trial.
Lastly, at the Joint Budget Committee in July, a point was made by State Representative Jonathan Singer (D-Longmont) when it was announced that the CBI would be running a full panel test on every DUI case sample that comes through its doors, regardless of whether or not the sample came in for just alcohol analysis. The reason for the full panel was to gather information about the effects of marijuana use throughout the state. Colorado’s current DUI law is not specific to alcohol or drugs, thus there is a grey area, but the CBI has admitted to the potential for challenges on the practice.
Singer questions the constitutionality of such actions. “If we’re looking for substances that weren’t the initiating or even the secondary reason for an arrest or a charge, are we wandering into any federal constitutional concerns about custody of evidence?”
That definitely sounds like something that could be a concern.
We’ve been saying it for years: breathalyzers are inaccurate for a multitude of reasons. Recall just a few months ago The New York Times confirmed exactly this stating that after interviewing “more than 100 attorneys, scientists, executives and police officers and [reviewing] ten of thousands of pages of court records, corporate filings, confidential emails and contracts,” it revealed “the depth of a nationwide [breathalyzer] problem that has attracted only sporadic attention.”
In January of last year, a Massachusetts judge threw out the breathalyzer results of over 400 DUI cases as the result of inaccurate results.
In late 2018, New Jersey’s highest court ruled that 20,667 breathalyzer results were faulty and therefore inadmissible in the DUI cases where the defendant’s blood alcohol content was used to secure the defendant’s conviction.
As if breathalyzer accuracy wasn’t unreliable enough already, now state police in Michigan are looking into the alleged fraudulent certification of breathalyzers used throughout that state.
Accuracy of breathalyzers thrown into question amid Michigan State Police investigation
January 14, 2020. Detroit Metro Times – Michigan State Police are investigating three contract employees who ensure the accuracy of breathalyzers used during traffic stops after authorities discovered “performance-related issues” and possible fraud.
State police notified law enforcement officers across the state to stop using more than 200 breathalyzers from longtime vendor Intoximeters.
The investigation focuses on three Intoximeters contract employees, who were responsible for certifying and calibrating Datamaster DMT breathalyzers to ensure they are accurate.
Investigators said they suspect fraud after finding discrepancies in paperwork.
Stopping the use of the breathalyzers “is an absolutely necessary move to safeguard the integrity of the criminal justice process,” Michigan State Police Director Col. Joseph Gasper said in a news release.
“Upon learning of additional and more egregious discrepancies, I am no longer comfortable having police agencies using these instruments until we can be confident they are certified, calibrated and serviced according to state law and industry standard,” Gasper says.
In a letter to law enforcement officers across the state, state police said prosecutors have been alerted to the suspected fraudulent activity.
“Prosecutors with cases impacted by the contractor errors identified by the MSP have already been notified,” Michigan State Police Maj. Greg Zarotney wrote to law enforcement officials. “However, out of an abundance of caution, we are examining all available data to determine if any additional tests are impacted by the contractor errors.”
The following law enforcement agencies were using breathalyzers with “possible discrepancies”: Alpena County Sheriff’s Department, Beverly Hills Police Department, Detroit Detention Center, Montcalm County Sheriff’s Department, Niles Police Department, Pittsfield Township Police Department, Tecumseh Police Department, and Van Buren County Sheriff’s Department.
In California courts, a person cannot challenge the accuracy of breathalyzers in general. If, however, an individual breathalyzer was inaccurate during a DUI stop, that person may challenge the accuracy of the individual breathalyzer used on them during the stop.
Why risk the uncertainty of a breathalyzer result when so much is on the line?
If an officer requests that a driver submit to a pre-arrest breathalyzer, that breathalyzer is optional. Although the officer may make it seem as though it is mandatory, the law does not require that the driver submit to a pre-arrest breathalyzer.
What is required, however, is that a driver submit to a chemical test, which can either be breath test or a blood test, but only after that driver is lawfully arrested on suspicion of a DUI. Until then, don’t do it.