Category Archives: Breathalyzers

Passing on the Breathalyzer?

It is not uncommon for people arrested on suspicion of a California DUI to mistaken believe that it is in their best interest to flatly refuse the breathalyzer. Not knowing the correct thing to do in this scenario can be the difference between becoming convicted of a California DUI and not, and unfortunately, the right thing to do is a little more complicated than merely refusing the breathalyzer or not.

When people refer to a “breathalyzer” during a California DUI stop, they actually referring to two different tests. The first is the roadside breathalyzer, often called a preliminary screening alcohol test or “PAS” test, and the second is the “chemical breath test.”

According to California Vehicle Code section 23612(h), the PAS test “indicates the presence or concentration of alcohol based on a breath sample in order to establish reasonable cause to believe the person was driving [under the influence]…[it] is a field sobriety test and may be used by an officer as a further investigative tool.”

The PAS roadside breath test, like other field sobriety tests such as the walk-and-turn test, the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, and the one leg stand test, are optional. Although an officer might threaten to arrest someone for refusing the optional breathalyzers, a driver should stand their ground and politely refuse to complete any field sobriety tests. Despite what the officer might say, they are optional and are only meant to give the officer the evidence they need to arrest the driver.

In fact, the officer must advise the driver that the roadside breath test is optional. California Vehicle Code section 23612(i) states that “If the officer decides to use a [PAS], the officer shall advise the person that he or she is requesting that person to take a [PAS] test to assist the officer in determining if that person is under the influence. The person’s obligation to submit to a [chemical test under California’s Implied Consent Law] is not satisfied by the person submitting to a [PAS] test. The officer shall advise the person of that fact and of the person’s right to refuse to take the [PAS] test.”

As stated above, providing a breath sample to an officer during the PAS test only give the officer the evidence they need to arrest a driver. Whether a driver provides the officer that information or not, the officer will have to make the decision to arrest a driver on suspicion of a DUI or not. In order to arrest a driver on suspicion of a California DUI, the officer must have probable cause. The probable cause can consist of driving patterns indicative of intoxication, bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, smell of alcohol on a driver’s breath, admissions of drinking or intoxication, and, yes, a reading of the pass test indicating a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher.

If the officer meets the probable cause standard by obtaining and/or observing enough evidence that a driver is driving under the influence, the officer can lawfully arrest the driver on suspicion of driving under the influence. Once this happens, California’s Implied Consent law takes effect.

California’s Implied Consent law, codified in California Vehicle Code section 23612(a)(1)(A), “A person who drives a motor vehicle is deemed to have given his or her consent to chemical testing of his or her blood or breath for the purpose of determining the alcohol content of his or her blood, if lawfully arrested for an offense allegedly committed in violation of [California’s DUI laws].”

Simply put, if you have a license and you drive in California, you have impliedly consented to submit to the chemical test after you have lawfully been arrested for a DUI, which can either be a breath test or a blood test. If the driver opts not to give blood, then they must provide a breath test. Conversely, if a person opts against the breath test, they must submit to the blood test.

So should you pass on the breathalyzer?

Pass on the roadside “PAS” test. Submit to the chemical test required under California’s Implied Consent law (See Breath or Blood Test After a California DUI Stop).

Big Surprise: Breathalyzers are Inaccurate

I’ve been saying and writing about it for years; breathalyzers are inaccurate. Now, The New York Times, in a bombshell report confirmed exactly that.

According to the report, “The Times interviewed more than 100 lawyers, scientists, executives and police officers and reviewed tens of thousands of pages of court records, corporate filings, confidential emails and contracts. Together, they reveal the depth of a nationwide problem that has attracted only sporadic attention.”

With so much at stake, including jail, you’d think that there would be more than mere “sporadic attention.”

Yet, the report found numerous inconsistencies with maintenance procedures of breathalyzer machines, inconsistencies within the machines themselves, and an over reliance on inaccurate data produced by breathalyzers.

In Colorado, for example, police had continued using a chemical solution that had long been expired when prepping the machines. The expired solutions caused inaccurate results. In another example, a former manager created his own chemical solution inconsistent with the standard chemicals used in the solution.  In some instances, there were no standards on how to prepare and operate the machines.

The report also found that the manufacturing process of the breathalyzer machines also create inaccuracies. For example, testing revealed that some machines produced a result even though the software programed into the machine occurred. Some tests revealed that accuracy of reading was affected by external factors such as the temperature of a person’s breath, whether they’ve consumed breath mints, or whether they’ve recently brushed their teeth, to name a few.

Despite the known inaccuracies, breathalyzer machines continue to often be the deciding factor in a DUI conviction.

In 2013, the California Supreme Court held that, although breathalyzers are generally inaccurate, scientific evidence challenging the accuracy of breathalyzers in California is not admissible as evidence in DUI trials.

The holding comes from the 2007 DUI stop of Terry Vangelder. Vangelder was stopped for speeding in San Diego. Although having admitted to consuming some alcohol, Vangelder passed field sobriety tests. Vangelder then agreed to a preliminary screening alcohol test (an optional roadside breathalyzer) which indicated that Vangelder’s blood alcohol content was 0.086 percent. Based on that, Vangelder was arrested and transported to the police station where he submitted to a chemical breath test (a required post-arrest breathalyzer). This breath test showed a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent. Vangelder then submitted to a blood test which indicated that his blood alcohol content of 0.087 percent.

At trial, Vangelder called Dr. Michael Hlastala, a leading authority on the inaccuracies of breathalyzers.

“They are (inaccurate),” Dr. Hlastala testified before the trial judge. “And primarily because the basic assumption that all of the manufacturers have used is that the breath that [is] measured is directly related to water in the lungs, which is directly related to what’s in the blood. And in recent years, we’ve learned that, in fact, that’s not the case.”

The judge however, did not allow the testimony and Vangelder was found guilty. Vangelder appealed and the appellate court reversed the decision in 2011. San Diego City Attorney, Jan Goldsmith, then appealed the appellate court decision arguing that such testimony would undermine California’s a per se law making it illegal to drive 0.08 percent blood alcohol content or higher.

Unfortunately, the California Supreme Court sided with Goldsmith.

“[T]he 1990 amendment of the per se offense was specifically designed to obviate the need for conversion of breath results into blood results — and it rendered irrelevant and inadmissible defense expert testimony regarding partition ratio variability among different individuals or at different times for the same individual,” Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye wrote for the court. “Whether or not that part of expired breath accurately reflects the alcohol that is present only in the alveolar region of the lungs, the statutorily proscribed amount of alcohol in expired breath corresponds to the statutorily proscribed amount of alcohol in blood, as established by the per se statute.”

The Court went on to say that, “Although Dr. Hlastala may hold scientifically based reservations concerning these legislative conclusions, we must defer to and honor the legislature’s reasonable determinations made in the course of its efforts to protect the safety and welfare of the public.”

Simply put, the California Supreme Court is willfully ignoring scientific evidence simply because the legislature was well-intentioned.

Although drivers can no longer challenge the accuracy of breathalyzers in general, a driver who has been arrested for a California DUI can still challenge the accuracy of the specific breathalyzer machine used on them.

 

Prescription Drug DUI

In late August, a Montebello police lieutenant was taken into custody in San Bernardino County on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs. He had previously been arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of prescription drugs, although charges were never filed. The arrest serves as a reminder that someone can be arrested for a California DUI with drugs, both illegal and legal.

On August 21st, Montebello Police Lt. Christopher Cervantes, 47, was arrested after police believe he rear-ended another car in the city of Montclair.

Neither Cervantes nor the other driver were injured in the collision, Cervantes was booked on suspicion of DUI at the San Bernardino County Jail, and he was subsequently placed on paid administrative leave.

In 2015, Cervantes was arrested following a collision with a tree in Diamond Bar. Although he tested positive for a combination of pain-relieving prescription drugs acetaminophen, butalbital, codeine, and morphine, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office declined to file charges citing a lack of evidence.

In 2011, Cervantes was detained after resisting arrest at a San Diego hotel party where he falsely claimed to police that he was a federal agent. Charges were never filed for this arrest either.

“I’m aware of everything in his personnel file and as I was the one who promoted him, I was confident that he was a great candidate for promotion to lieutenant,” said Montebello Police Chief Brad Keller. Cervantes was promoted by Keller after

 Cervantes’s 2015 arrest.

As a high-ranking police officer, Cervantes should have been acutely aware that a person can still be arrested for driving under the influence of drugs, including prescription drugs. Many people, on the other hand, often believe that a DUI can only occur if a driver has alcohol in their system. Some people believe that a DUI can occur with only alcohol or illegal drugs, and because a drug might be legal, whether prescription or over-the-counter, a driver cannot get a DUI if they have legal drugs in their system.

California Vehicle Code section 23152 (f) states, “It is unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any drug to drive a vehicle.”

“Any drug” includes those that are illegal as well as legal, both prescription and over the counter.

The important consideration here is the phrase “under the influence.” Although, prescription drugs and other legal drugs fall within the definition of “any drug,” a person must also have his or her mental or physical abilities impaired to such a degree that he or she is unable to drive a vehicle with the caution of a sober person to be “under the influence.”

What kinds of medications can cause you to be under the influence? Tranquilizers, narcotic pain pills, sleep aids, antidepressants, cough medicines, antihistamines, and decongestants to name a few. And how might they cause you to be under the influence? Drowsiness, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, blurred vision, and confusion, to name a few. Kind of sounds like being drunk, doesn’t it?

A few years back, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that almost half of people 70 years old and above take up to five medications per day. Additionally, a survey from the foundation found that 72% of people 55 and over, the demographic most likely to take medications for chronic conditions, had no idea that their driving performance could be affected by their prescription medications.

Remember, a DUI does not just mean driving under the influence of alcohol, or even illegal drugs, but all drugs including prescription and over-the-counter drugs. If it is capable of affecting a person’s driving ability, then it’s best to wait until after a driving excursion is over.

 

Marijuana Breath Detector

According to the California Highway Patrol, the number of arrests for driving under the influence of marijuana has increased since recreational marijuana in California became legal in 2018. Yet, determining when someone is under the influence of marijuana to a degree that makes them incapable of safely operating a motor vehicle remains as difficult as it always has been…or has it?

California Vehicle Code section 23152(f) makes it “unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any drug to drive a vehicle.”

Quite clearly, marijuana is a drug even if it is recreational. Whether a transportation device qualifies as a “vehicle” for purposes of this law is a different subject for a different day. The bigger question, however, is whether someone is “under the influence” after having smoke marijuana.

To be “under the influence” as the result of consuming marijuana, a person must have his or her mental or physical abilities so impaired that he or she is unable to drive a vehicle with the same caution of a sober person, using ordinary care, under similar circumstances.

While this definition might sound nice, it is still difficult to determine how much marijuana an individual must consume before they are so “high” that they are unable to drive a vehicle with the same caution of a sober person, using ordinary care, under similar circumstances.

Unlike alcohol, there is little correlation between the amount of marijuana someone has consumed and how impaired a person is.

Alcohol is water soluble, which means that it enters and leaves the bloodstream fairly quickly. Additionally, a person’s blood alcohol content, which can be determined rather quickly and accurately, has scientifically been shown to correlate with how drunk (i.e. impaired) someone is. Every state, with the exception of Utah, has a blood alcohol content limit of 0.08 percent because, generally speaking, that is the point at which alcohol begins to affect a person’s motor skills, thus making them “under the influence” for purposes of a DUI with alcohol.

THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive component to marijuana, on the other hand, is fat soluble. Therefore, unlike alcohol, it can stay in a person’s system for much longer than alcohol. In fact, regular users of marijuana can still have THC in their systems weeks after having consumed marijuana and certainly long after being high, which necessarily means that it cannot and should not be used to determine how high someone is, and whether they are “under the influence.” Yet, current blood tests only detect the amount of THC in a person’s system, but there is no way to determine how “high” someone is.

Oakland based Hound Labs is trying to change this by creating the first breathalyzer to measure “recent” marijuana and alcohol use on the breath.

“When you can you find THC in breath, and that can require some incredibly sensitive tools, but when you can find it, then you know that the person used very, very recently,” said Dr. Mike Lynn, emergency room physician, reserve deputy sheriff, and founder of Hound Labs.

Working in conjunction with UCSF, Hound Labs determined that THC can be found on a person’s breath.

“We found THC in all twenty test subjects, and what was really interesting, is that the THC peaked at about 15 minutes, and then it went out of the breath within 2 to 3 hours,” said Dr. Lynn.

According to Dr. Lynn and Hound Labs, if THC is found on the breath, it means that a person had smoked within the last few hours. They also determined that the first two to three hours following marijuana consumption is when a driver is at the greatest risk for being impaired.

Hound Labs were granted $30 million in funding to continue to develop and manufacture the marijuana breath test to be used by law enforcement by the end of the year.

While it may be a step in the right direction in finding the elusive answer to the question, “When is someone too high to drive?” issues remain. When Hound Lab’s device detects that someone consumed marijuana “recently,” how recent is it? Does “recent use” account for even negligible amounts of marijuana consumption? Will “recent use” change the way we draft our DUI of marijuana laws?

Bottom line is that, before we get too carried away, we need to make sure that whatever safeguard and/or preventative measures we put in place to stop high drivers do not infringe on the rights of people who consume marijuana safely and lawfully.

Labor Day Checkpoints and Knowing What to Do

Law enforcement agencies throughout Southern California will increase their efforts to thwart would-be drunk drivers this month and on into the Labor Day weekend. One tool I know they plan on using during this time is the DUI checkpoint.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Labor Day weekend is one of the deadliest holidays of the year when it comes alcohol-related collisions. In 2017, there was 376 deadly crashes nationwide for the Labor Day holiday period which ran from September 1st to September 5th. Of those 376 deadly collisions, more than one-third (36%) involved drunk drivers.

Last year, California saw two deaths and 31 injuries on Labor Day.

Since there is an increased chance of getting stopped at checkpoint in the next couple of weeks, it makes sense to remind our readers what their rights are when it comes to a California DUI checkpoint.

The 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution requires that officers have probable cause and a warrant before they can seize and/or search a person. Well, what is a checkpoint? It is certainly a seizure since the police are stopping people on the roads when they would otherwise be free to drive without interruption. It may be also a search if the law enforcement has drivers take a breathalyzer since by doing so they are looking for evidence of drunk driving.

So, checkpoints can involve both searches and seizures, yet police don’t have warrants to stop and breathalyze drivers. How?

In the 1987 case of Ingersoll v. Palmer, the California Supreme Court set forth guidelines to ensure the constitutionality of checkpoints in California such that law enforcement doesn’t need a warrant. Those guidelines are:

  1. The decision to conduct checkpoint must be at the supervisory level.
  2. There must be limits on the discretion of field officers.
  3. Checkpoints must be maintained safely for both the officers and the motorists.
  4. Checkpoints must be set up at reasonable locations such that the effectiveness of the checkpoint is optimized.
  5. The time at which a checkpoint is set up should also optimize the effectiveness of the checkpoint.
  6. The checkpoint must show indicia of official nature of the roadblock.
  7. Motorists must only be stopped for a reasonable amount of time which is only long enough to briefly question the motorist and look for signs of intoxication.
  8. Lastly, the Court in the Ingersoll decision was strongly in favor of the belief that there should be advance publicity of the checkpoint. To meet this requirement law enforcement usually make the checkpoints highly visible with signs and lights.

Three years later in the case of Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz, the United States Supreme Court held that the state’s interest in preventing drunk driving was a “substantial government interest.” It further held that this government interest outweighed motorists’ interests against unreasonable searches and seizures when considering the brevity and nature of the stop. In doing so, the court held that sobriety checkpoints were constitutional even though officers were technically violating the 4th Amendment (because they don’t have a warrant when they seize and search motorists at DUI checkpoints).

Now that we’ve determined that sobriety checkpoints are constitutional, I would be remiss if I did not tell you what your rights and obligations are, as the driver, should you happen to find yourself stopped at a sobriety checkpoint.

Based on the last of the Ingersoll v. Palmer requirements, checkpoints must be highly visible. As a result, drivers are often aware of the checkpoint before they drive up to it. Believe it or not, drivers are allowed to turn around so as to avoid the checkpoint. They, however, must do so without breaking any traffic laws such as making an illegal U-turn.

If you do not turn away, but rather pull up to the checkpoint, the officer might first ask you some questions such as: Where are you coming from? Where are you going? Have you had anything to drink?

The 5th Amendment to the Constitution gives you the right not to say anything to law enforcement ever. And don’t! Invoke your right to remain silent by telling the officer, “I would like invoke my 5th Amendment right and respectfully decline to answer any of your questions.” Now keep your mouth shut until given the opportunity to call your attorney.

Surely this is not going to sit well with the officer. They may, at that point, have the driver exit the car and request that they perform field sobriety tests. Drivers should absolutely decline to perform the field sobriety tests. They are an inaccurate indicator of intoxication, but fortunately they are optional. I and many other people would have trouble doing them sober.

At this point, the officer is likely fuming, but who cares? You are exercising your constitutional rights.

As a last-ditch effort, they may request that you take a roadside breathalyzer commonly referred to as a “PAS” (preliminary alcohol screening) test. Under California’s implied consent rule, as a driver, you must submit to a chemical test after you have been arrested on suspicion of a DUI. The key word is “after.” Therefore, when you happen upon a checkpoint and the officer requests that you to take the PAS test, you can legally refuse. If, however, the officer has arrested you on suspicion of DUI you must submit to either a blood test or a breath test.

This Labor Day be on the lookout for sobriety checkpoints. But should you find yourself about to drive through one with no way to legally turn around, know your rights and use them. That’s what they’re there for.