Challenging the Breathalyzer in a California DUI Case

Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

The breathalyzer is the most commonly used method for testing the blood alcohol content of suspected drunk drivers in California. Yet, both myself and Lawrence Taylor have written on more than a few occasions about the inaccuracies of the breathalyzer. Such inaccuracies include, but are not limited to an inability to differentiate between blood alcohol and “mouth alcohol,” elevated temperatures causing elevated BAC readings, and certain diets causing elevated readings.  

So can a person suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol in California challenge the accuracy of breathalyzers in court?

Notwithstanding the widely proven fact that breathalyzers are generally inaccurate, the California Supreme Court in 2013 ruled that scientific evidence refuting the accuracy of breathalyzers in general in California DUI cases are inadmissible.

The issue arose when a California trial court agreed with the prosecutor and excluded the testimony of a defense expert of Terry Vangelder who would have testified that breathalyzers, in general, can be inaccurate.

In 2007, California Highway Patrol pulled over Vangelder for allegedly going 125 miles per hour 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 Californi’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."

I’m sorry, but I read that to say, “We recognize that science is important in determining the accuracy of breathalyzers, but we’re not going to undermine the legislature because of its good intent.”

Legislators are not scientists.

The effect of the decision was that people suspected of a California DUI can no longer offer evidence that breathalyzers, in general, are inaccurate. People suspected of a California DUI can, however, still challenge the accuracy of a particular breathalyzer.

Seems to me that the California Supreme Court doesn’t want accuracy in California DUI cases.


Do “Dominion and Control” DUI Laws Incentivize Drunk Driving?

Monday, September 12th, 2016

Despite what some think, drunk driving doesn’t necessarily involve driving. In some states a person can actually be arrested, charged and convicted of drunk driving even when the person didn’t drive their vehicle. Such states have what are called “dominion and control” DUI laws. Under “dominion and control” DUI laws, if a person is intoxicated and have dominion and control of their vehicles with the mere ability to drive, they can be arrested, charged, and convicted of that state’s DUI laws.

Simply put, “dominion and control” DUI laws create the possibility of someone getting arrested, charged, and convicted of a DUI when they’re trying to sober up in their vehicle and have absolutely no intent to drive.

Having said that, the question arises, “Do ‘dominion and control’ DUI laws give people incentive to actually drive drunk?”

This question is currently being asked by law makers in New Jersey.

Steve Carrellas, director or government and public affairs for the New Jersey chapter of the National Motorists Association, considered the repercussions of such a scenario.

“But then they’ll say, ‘Well, I have more of a chance of getting arrested doing the right thing than I do attempting to drive home, so I’m going to drive home.’ What a mixed message,” said Carrellas.

“I think it has to be looked to on a case-by-case basis,” said New Jersey Assemblyman John McKeon.

McKeon says it appears the law needs redefining.

“I’m going to consider it now that this topic is swirling around and there seems to be a lack of consistency. I’m going to do it in an intelligent way, though. We’ll have special hearings in the Legislature and hear what law enforcement has to say, hear what attorneys have to say that specialize in that field and try to come up with something that’s consistent,” he said.

Carrellas and McKeon are right to question the law. Lawmakers, be it the courts or our legislators, have a duty to create laws to deter bad behavior and not punish good behavior. First off, we don’t want to punish people who deliberately attempt to avoid driving drunk by sleeping it off in the car. And we most certainly don’t want to give incentive people to drive drunk.

Fortunately, we here in California don’t have that problem. California is not a “dominion and control” DUI law state. In California, the law requires that a person actually drive a vehicle. In 1991, the California Supreme Court in the case of Mercer v. Department of Motor Vehicles held that the word “drive” in California’s DUI law means that the defendant volitionally and voluntarily moved the vehicle. The court has held that even a “slight movement” is enough to meet the element of driving.


Turning a Blind Eye to DUI

Monday, August 29th, 2016

Put yourself in the following situation: You and your friend, Vary Waysted agreed to go out to the local watering hole for the evening. This time, however, is Vary’s turn to be the designated driver. Half way into the evening, you notice Vary at the bar ordering a drink, but you do nothing. You know he shouldn’t have any alcohol because he was to be driving the both of you home, but still you do nothing. Sure enough, on the drive home Vary is stopped on the way home and arrested on suspicion of a California DUI.

You may be thinking to yourself that you would never allow that, that you would’ve spoken up and admonished Vary for not staying absolutely sober. But believe it or not, this is an extremely common phenomenon and it, unfortunately, is the cause of many drunk driving incidences and arrests.

Still don’t believe me? The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) recently offered a brewery tour as part of a social experiment which demonstrated that turning a blind eye to drunk driving actually does happen.

Denver, Colorado is quickly becoming one of America’s epicenters for craft breweries. And a group of beer enthusiasts signed up to partake in tour of three of its breweries. Unbeknownst to the beer enthusiasts was that the transportation for the tour was a bus driven by an actor hired by the CDOT and the tour guide was also an actor.

With hidden cameras documenting the tour, the participants enjoyed their beers. None of the participants, however, seemed to care too much that their bus driver was enjoying beers right alongside them.

Fortunately, the driver was only drinking non-alcoholic beer. To drive the point home, the tour guide, who was similar to the driver in height and weight was actually drinking the alcoholic beer. After three 16-ounce beers, the tour guide had a blood alcohol content of 0.10 percent.

In a news release, the CDOT said "even small amounts of alcohol can land you a DUI."

"The experiment confirmed for us that many adults underestimate the dangers associated with driving after having a few drinks," CDOT spokesman Sam Cole said in a statement. "The participants never expressed concern that their driver was drinking and driving."

So why do so many people willfully choose to ignore information and situations which may be harmful to themselves or others?

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a background in psychology. While my focus on the law has long since overshadowed my focus on psychology, my interest does get piqued when psychology intersects with DUI law.

Humans turn a blind eye to information and situations which may be harmful to themselves or others when doing so is easier than facing the scary, hostile, and/or objectionable consequences of acknowledging and confronting the situation.

Let’s go back to our scenario. Instead of turning a blind eye, you confront Vary Waysted about ordering the drink when he was supposed to be the designated driver. The confrontation leads to an argument, but eventually Vary acquiesces to remaining sober. Although Vary doesn’t talk to you for the rest of the evening, both of you make it home safe and DUI-free.

Before turning a blind eye to DUI, ask yourself, “Would I rather have someone upset with me for a little while or run the risk of being involved in a DUI-related accident?”



Temporary Tattoo Give BAC Reading

Tuesday, August 16th, 2016

Considering purchasing a personal breathalyzer? I’ve suggested it before as one of several ways to help prevent a DUI. What if knowing your blood alcohol content was a simple as slapping on a temporary tattoo? Well, researchers at the Center for Wearable Sensors at the University of California San Diego have created a removable electronic tattoo that detects the wearer’s BAC.

A team of researchers at the center were interested in a device that offered continued BAC monitoring which typical breathalyzer do not offer. The researchers also wanted to develop a BAC detector that could not be skewed by factors other than blood alcohol such as mouthwash, acid reflux, or alcohol residue in the mouth all of which affect typical breathalyzers.

The tattoo is similar to other devices sometimes mandated by the court as a condition of a California DUI sentence or a condition of being release without having to post bail pending the outcome of a California DUI case. At least in Southern California, the device is called a SCRAM device which passively tests “insensible” sweat, or trace amounts of sweat, excreted from a person’s skin. The SCRAM device is rather bulky and can be relatively expensive.

The tattoo, however, emits a drug called pilocarpine, which generates sweat. The tattoo then tests the sweat excreted from the skin as a result of administration of the pilocarpine for ethanol alcohol through sensors which are attached to the skin. However, unlike the SCRAM device, the temporary tattoo and sensors are attached to a flat, flexible circuit board that is about an inch in length. The circuit board then transmits the information to the wearer’s phone via Bluetooth.

One of the project scientists and professor of nanoengineering, Joseph Wang, has said that the tattoo device could be made even smaller than its current form with continued engineering. He added that, unlike the SCRAM device, the tattoo could cost a mere pennies to produce.

“We developed a new tattoo-based wearable alcohol sensor that enables real-time monitoring of blood alcohol level, overcoming limitations of conventional non-invasive alcohol sensors,” said Jayoung Kim, a co-author and PhD student at UCSD.

The tattoo comes at a time when law makers and law enforcement agencies are actively seeking more reliable and efficient ways to detect blood alcohol content.

Earlier this year, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which is part of the National Institute of Health, awarded $200,000 to San Francisco-based BACtrack for developing a bracelet-type device as the winner of its Wearable Alcohol Biosensor Challenge. BACtrack has produced a number of personal breathalyzers for consumer use.

Keith Nothacker, BACtrack’s founder and chief executive officer, said that the firm is working on bringing the winning sensor, called “Skyn,” to the consumer market for around $99 and offer a version that is integrated into a band for the Apple watch.

In a press release, Joseph Wang said that the primary purpose for developing the BAC-detecting temporary tattoo was to prevent drunk driving.

“Lots of accidents on the road are caused by drunk driving. This technology provides an accurate, convenient and quick way to monitor alcohol consumption to help prevent people from driving while intoxicated,” Wang said.

Hopefully soon the temporary tattoo will be available for consumer use. And maybe the BAC detecting tattoo will prevent, not just drunk driving, but also someone from getting so drunk that they get a real tattoo that they might regret the next morning.


New Mexico and MADD take to Shaming Drunk Drivers on Twitter

Monday, May 2nd, 2016

We live in a digital era where everything, literally everything, can get posted for the world to see. Social media outlets like Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter can let anyone know where you live and work, who you’re associated with, and what you’re doing at any given moment. There are, however, somethings that we don’t want the world to know about and that we deliberately withhold from social media, like a DUI conviction.

Although criminal convictions are public record, one would not expect anyone in the world to have access to that information without taking the trouble to actually find it. And why would they?

Well now in New Mexico, they won’t have to. Thanks to the ever hyper-vigilant organization, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), information on a person’s DUI conviction, sentence, and judges whom they believe are too lenient on the DUI offenders will be posted on the social media website Twitter for all of the world to see.

New Mexico Governor, Susana Martinez announced earlier this month that the state will pay MADD staffers to attend DUI hearings and publicize the information in tweets. How much money, you might ask. MADD was granted a whopping $800,000 contract for this program of public shaming.

“Too many lives have been shattered by drunk drivers, and too often our justice system fails our families by going easy on the criminals,” Martinez said at a news conference in Albuquerque.

The number of people killed in drunk driving related accidents last year in New Mexico decreased by 28 percent, marking a 36-year low in a state that has long struggled with high DUI rates, officials said last month.

New Mexico follows several municipalities that have taken to social media to shame DUI offenders. In March, I wrote a post on the Chesterfield Sheriff’s Office in Chesterfield, Virginia, who took to posting the mugshots of people who had been arrested for driving under the influence.

If you ask me, there are a number of very serious problems with this.

The first issue I have is what many have express about this program. Couldn’t New Mexico’s money be better spent elsewhere?

Second, there is the possibility that a program such as this could violate the privacy rights of those whose information is being posted. I can’t say one way or another without doing more legal research into the issue. Sure seems like an invasion of privacy though.

What’s more, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that posting this information will lead to retaliation by the public. It goes without saying that people have very strong feelings about people who have been convicted of DUI. Those feelings, if you ask me, have led to a disproportionate villainization and stigmatization of those who have been convicted of drunk driving. New Mexico could possibly be putting these people at risk of harm with this program.

Lastly, this program is likely to place political pressure on judges to give harsher punishments for DUI convictions when the facts of the case may not warrant it. It is within the judge’s authority to determine the punishment for a DUI conviction. It’s their job.

Democratic state Representative Antionio “Moe” Maestas correctly made the comparison that “[b]laming a judge for not enough conviction rates is like blaming [a baseball] umpire for not enough strikeouts.”