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Faulty Breath Test evidence in Massachusetts undermines the reliability of OUI convictions

The news this week of errors with breath testing in Massachusetts has had a major impact on the prosecution of drunk driving cases and raises the potential of hundreds of wrongful convictions and or wrongful pleas that were not supported by accurate evidence. One reason this has occurred is the ease with which prosecutors can admit breath test evidence at trial. The Commonwealth can admit the results without calling any witness that knows anything about how the machine operates. At a trial, the breath test operator will typically testify that they are taught to push the button, wait for the machine to run its self checks and if the machine does not report any error, the results are fine. The officer will often admit to not understanding the science behind the machine.

The Commonwealth is not required to call any expert witness from the Office of Alcohol Testing to verify the accuracy of the results. In a case known as Commonwealth v. Zeininger, 459 Mass. 775 (2011), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said that breath test records can come into evidence without live testimony because the records are not testimonial, meaning that the Court was saying that the records do not accuse a person of a crime but report “neutral” data. The Court’s reasoning was flawed and allowed evidence to come in a trials without being properly tested through cross examination. In light of the disclosure of the problems with the machine, the SJC should reconsider its decision in the Zeininger case that is partly the cause of unreliable evidence being presented to jurors during OUI trials.

This bring us to the error that prompted many counties to hold off using breath test results, including Suffolk, Middlesex, Worcester, Essex, Northwestern, Barnstable County.

Prosecutors are explaining that the error is that the manufacturer has broader tolerance for errors than the State regulations and as a result the machine does not notify of the operator of an error. According to the MyFoxBoston report, police are trying to minimize the significance of the problem by claiming they were not properly trained and had inadequate understanding of the machine. Despite district attorneys declining to use the results, police departments will still offer breath tests for those arrested for OUI over this weekend according to a Boston Herald report.

When the breath test machine calibrates itself prior to each individual test, it was suppose to read between .076 and .084 on a known alcohol solution that was suppose to be .08 percent. The problem was that the machine was reading outside of the calibration without notifying the operator of the error. Accordingly, the machine did not have the ability to self-check its own errors as officers testified occurred during OUI trials.

The issue is that prosecutors and police officers have been testifying since the Alcotest 9510 was first used in 2012 in Massachusetts that the machine would not produce a result unless it was working properly. This testimony that occurred in almost every trial with breath test evidence was clearly wrong and inaccurate. The calibration numbers are at least evident from a breath test ticket, but the machine performs many functions that would be undetectable unless the machine was completely examined which does not happen during a trial or even during the annual certification of the breath test machine.

The breath test machine is suppose to have a mouth alcohol detector, a sensor that determines there is no alcohol in the chamber prior to the breath test and makes calculations to convert a breath alcohol reading into a blood alcohol percentage based on an individual partition ratio. All of these functions of the machine are assumed to work properly. The periodic testing of a breath test machine is simply running a known sample through the machine five times. The machine is never challenged to see if any of its features work during the periodic testing. The annual certification of the machine is not rigorous either with the machine being tested at different alcohol levels of .08, .10 and .20 with a sample made in a laboratory.

The problem with breath testing runs much deeper than officers not being trained to catch if the machine fails to calibrate, but centers around having a machine represent per se evidence of guilty in a criminal case and having no reliable evidence in court that it works, other than the machine did not tell us there was an error. Only in a drunk driving case can someone be convicted of a crime based solely on the result of a machine, that even during trials, police witnesses acknowledge they do not know how it works and simply push the buttons waiting for an error message.

The Office of Alcohol Testing should create meaningful testing of the breath test machine while the Courts should recognize that breath test evidence should require live testimony subject to cross examination at trial, rather than permitting the Commonwealth to submit documents, claiming to show accurate results without anyone to provide meaningful testimony as to how to interpret the records and verify that the machine was working properly.

To read more about breath testing and the error with the machine, you can see my previous Blog on the topic.

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