Big Surprise: Breathalyzers are Inaccurate

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

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.

 

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Can Technology End Drunk Driving?

Thursday, October 17th, 2019

If you’re anything like me, the speed with which technology is advancing is almost too much to keep up with. No doubt, while some technology is proving to be a detriment to society, like the diminishment of person-to-person interaction, other technology serves to benefit technology, like the various ways lives can be saved as a result of technology. Two law makers are hoping that new technology can stop drunk driving and save lives in the process.

Recall the post Can Alcohol Sensors in All Cars Eliminate Drunk Driving? where I discussed the prospect of introducing alcohol sensing technology into all new vehicles available for purchase.

Since then, as expected, alcohol sensing technology has advanced and Tom Udall, a democratic senator from New Mexico, and Rick Scott, a republican senator from Florida, have said in a recent interview with Reuters that they plan on introducing bi-partisan legislation making the technology a requirement for all new vehicles off the lot.

“This issue has a real urgency to it,” Udall said in an interview with Reuters. “The industry is often resistant to new mandates. We want their support but we need to do this whether or not we have it – lives are at stake.”

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), almost 30 people die in the United States as a result of drunk driving. In 2017, that amounted to 10,847 fatalities involving drunk driving.

The technology that Udall and Scott are referring to are devices implanted within a steering wheel or a push-button ignition that can detect the blood alcohol content of a driver through infrared lights shined through the driver’s finger tips. They are also looking at sensors that monitor a driver’s eye movement and breath. Whatever the method, should the technology detect a blood alcohol content higher than the legal limit, the driver will not be able to start their vehicle.

A similar bill has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Debbie Dingell, a Democrat, that would require setting rules for advanced vehicle alcohol detection devices by 2024.

The NHTSA has invested over $50 million spanning 10 years in similar technology to what Udall and Scott are seeking to implement. The technology is already undergoing limited field testing in Maryland and Virginia, according to Udall.

Earlier this year, Volvo announced plans to install cameras and sensors in its vehicles by the early 2020’s to monitor the driver for distractions, errors, and even drunk driving. And should the technology detect anything that could result in a collision, the vehicles internal system would limit the vehicle’s speed, alert the “Volvo on Call” assistance service, or slow down and parking the car.

Udall and Scott’s Reduce Impaired Driving for Everyone Act, or RIDE Act, can be read here.

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Labor Day Checkpoints and Knowing What to Do

Thursday, August 22nd, 2019

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.

 

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The End of Texas’s Driver Responsibility Program Means More DUI Fines

Friday, July 26th, 2019

As of September 1st, 2019, one of the most hated programs ordered by the state of Texas for traffic violations will be no more, but that means more fines for DUI offenses.

The Driver Responsibility Program imposed surcharges on Texas drivers who were convicted of charges such as driving under the influence or driving without a license. These surcharges were in addition to the standard fines for the convictions themselves, and could range from $250 per year (for three years for driving with an invalid license) to $2,000 per year for three years (for a DUI with a blood alcohol of 0.16 or higher). Surcharges could be imposed on those who had one too many simple moving violations as well.

For most, it was a nuisance fee that was added onto whatever they may have done, but for others who were in tighter financial constraints, these fines would add up if they were unable to pay, resulting in suspended licenses, and even more tickets and fines.

According to Terri Burke of the ACLU of Texas, “The Driver Responsibility Program has forced thousands of Texans to pay for their liberty, which is no justice at all. Suspending someone’s license only further removes them from the workforce, leaving them without money to pay additional fees.”

A bill was signed by Texas Governor Greg Abbott to end the program about three weeks ago and it is expected that over 630,000 people will have their licenses reinstated with the conclusion of the program, as long as they do not have any fees of suspensions unrelated to the Driver Responsibility Program. An additional 350,000 people will be able to get their licenses reinstated with the payment of a restatement fee. Seeing these numbers, it is amazing to see how many people were affected by this program.

Now, with the revenue that the state will no longer be able to make from the program, the money must be offset somehow. The bill called for a $2 increase on state-mandated car insurance fees, which would be specifically allocated to trauma hospitals, and the remaining revenue is to be offset by an increase in the fines for DUI offenses. A first time DUI offense currently imposes a fine of $2,000, but with the conclusion of the Driver Responsibility Program, it will be increased to a whopping $6,000 penalty.

The fight to repeal the Driver Responsibility Program had been going on for years with part of the argument against it being that it violated the Equal Protection Clause with its unfair license suspension system. It seems though that advocates finally got their say. Unfortunately, it also seems that there are still many issues to work through. What the drivers who are currently part of the Program need to do with the fees that they have incurred thus far is still unclear. What is also unclear are the repercussions in terms of license points and/or fees between now and September 1st (when the program officially is repealed). It does not seem that the Texas Department of Public Safety has yet made any official announcements in how those details will be handled and how drivers should handle their remaining fees. Hopefully, an announcement with clear directions to the public will be made soon regarding the transition in the next few months.

BTW, this is best aliexpress cachback.

While drivers in Texas might be spared from paying more money for traffic violations in general as a result of the program’s end, drivers in Texas would also be wise to avoid driving drunk because it could now break the bank.

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Supreme Court Rules Cops Can Withdraw Blood from an Unconscious Driver

Monday, July 1st, 2019

Yes, you read that title correctly. The United States Supreme Court just ruled that police can withdraw blood from an unconscious person suspected of driving under the influence.

Six years ago, police found Gerald Mitchell on a beach in Wisconsin and suspected he was intoxicated after a neighbor reported that he was drunk and suicidal. After being arrested, Mitchell was transported to a hospital. However, by the time he arrived at the hospital, he was unresponsive and law enforcement ordered hospital staff to draw his blood, which revealed a blood alcohol content of 0.22 percent.

Although Mitchell tried to exclude his blood alcohol content from evidence, he was denied and ultimately convicted of driving under the influence. After losing in the Wisconsin state courts, he appealed to the United States Supreme Court arguing that the withdrawal of his blood while he was unconscious without a warrant violated his 4th Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority which included Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Stephen Breyer, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and himself, concluded that the 4th Amendment, generally, does require a warrant to conduct a search. However, he went on to say that there are exceptions to the warrant requirement including “exigent circumstances” where, as here, a warrantless blood withdraw was necessary to “prevent the imminent destruction of evidence.” Alito continued that the alcohol in a person’s system is “literally disappearing,” which justifies the need to obtain the evidence before taking the time for law enforcement to obtain a warrant.

“Indeed, not only is the link to pressing interests here tighter; the interests themselves are greater: Drivers who are drunk enough to pass out at the wheel or soon afterward pose a much greater risk,” Alito wrote. “It would be perverse if the more wanton behavior were rewarded — if the more harrowing threat were harder to punish.”

Alito also noted that the condition of a driver who is unconscious creates additional burdens on law enforcement since the driver will likely be taken to a hospital rather than the police station where a breath test can be administered.

“It would force them to choose between prioritizing a warrant application, to the detriment of critical health and safety needs, and delaying the warrant application, and thus the BAC test, to the detriment of its evidentiary value and all the compelling interest served by BAC limits,” he wrote. “This is just the kind of scenario for which the exigency rule was born – just the kind of grim dilemma it lives to dissolve.”

Justice Clarence Thomas concurred with the result, but not Alito’s rationale. Thomas maintained that since alcohol automatically leaves a person’s blood within a certain amount of time, police should be able to forcibly withdraw blood whether the driver is conscious or not.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissenting opinion that was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Elena Kagan. Sotomayor argued that Alito’s rationale had missed the point. Sotomayor emphasized that, in this case, law enforcement admitted that there was time to obtain a warrant for Mitchell’s blood, but that they didn’t because of “implied consent.” Implied consent, which exists here in California, is a law that a driver has impliedly agreed to a chemical test by mere virtue of having a driver’s license.

“Wisconsin has not once, in any of its briefing before this Court or the state courts, argued that exigent circumstances were present here,” Sotomayor wrote. “In fact, in the state proceedings, Wisconsin ‘conceded’ that the exigency exception does not justify the warrantless blood draw in this case.”

She went on to say, correctly so in my opinion, that, while “drunk driving poses significant dangers that Wisconsin and other States must be able to curb…the answer is clear: If there is time, get a warrant.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch dissented separately also taking issue with the fact that the case had been decided on grounds that were not the basis for the appeal; whether implied consent laws violate the 4th Amendment.

“We took this case to decide whether Wisconsin drivers impliedly consent to blood alcohol tests thanks to a state statute,” Gorsuch wrote. “That law says that anyone driving in Wisconsin agrees — by the very act of driving — to testing under certain circumstances. But the Court today declines to answer the question presented. Instead, it upholds Wisconsin’s law on an entirely different ground—citing the exigent circumstances doctrine.”

Take a second to ask yourself what place you expect to be more private than any other place, including your home. I expect that the most prevalent answer is “our bodies.” Yet, for the place that we consider to be the most private, law enforcement does not need a warrant to intrude into it as long as we have a driver’s license.

Sound like a loophole for law enforcement? It is!

I am not saying that we shouldn’t be testing the blood of suspected drunk drivers. But the Constitution protects all of us, suspected drunk drivers included. And if the Constitution requires a warrant to search, especially the thing most of hold to be the most private, then law enforcement should have to get one.

It’s not like law enforcement is sending the warrant application by raven! How long (or difficult) would it really take to obtain a warrant? A few minutes if done digitally? Alito and the majority don’t seem to care as they continue to make it easier for law enforcement to violate constitutional rights.

Justice Sotomayor said it best. If there is time, get a warrant.

 

 

 

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