Hundreds of DWI Cases in Question After Laboratory Reports Errors Involving Blood Samples

kropekk_pl [Public domain, CC0 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en)], via PixabayA series of errors by a private laboratory testing company has called hundreds of pending DWI cases into question. Blood samples sent to the lab were reportedly mislabeled, or were subject to other paperwork errors, resulting in uncertain test results. Prosecutors are trying to determine whether retesting is possible, while DWI defendants and their advocates remain skeptical that the state has revealed all of the damage done by the lab’s errors. Laws defining the offense of DWI generally do not require evidence of blood alcohol content (BAC) obtained through blood or breath testing, but chemical evidence is generally considered the simplest way for prosecutors to prove intoxication.

The district attorney’s office in San Antonio, Texas contracted with the laboratory, which is located in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, to test samples taken by police in DWI cases. The lab reportedly sent a letter to the DA’s office in May 2014 informing it that an analyst had made multiple errors in paperwork affecting hundreds of samples. The DA’s office has reportedly not made the full extent of the errors public, but one error by the analyst, who has been terminated by the lab, involved incorrect labeling of 350 samples.

The lab has reportedly sent test results to the DA’s office with notices that they cannot definitively link the results to a specific sample, although the DA’s office has denied that results have actually been mixed up between cases. The office has also denied that any samples were contaminated by the lab, although news media have reported that some documents make reference to contaminated equipment. The situation has left both prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys uncertain how to proceed with pending DWI cases.

The legal definition of DWI in New Jersey is the operation of a motor vehicle with BAC of 0.08 percent or higher, or “while under the influence of intoxicating liquor, narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit-producing drug.” The second definition is vague, to be sure, and even the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission acknowledges that BAC is “the only scientific way” to prove intoxication. A driver is presumed to have consented to breath testing under New Jersey law, but not blood testing. To take a blood sample, a law enforcement officer generally must have a warrant. Refusal to submit to a breath test, however, could result in automatic license suspension and a fine.

In the absence of BAC evidence, the state could still attempt to prove that the defendant was “under the influence” of alcohol or another substance while driving. This presents significantly different challenges, however. BAC evidence is only subject to challenge by a defendant based on factors that occurred before trial and outside of the courtroom, such as labeling errors, contamination of samples, or equipment malfunctions. Proving intoxication by other means generally requires testimony from witnesses, who must testify in open court about their observations of the defendant. This gives defendants the opportunity to cross-examine them and challenge, for example, their recollection of events or their qualifications to assess a person’s intoxication. Prosecutors may occasionally prefer to dismiss a case rather than proceed without BAC evidence.

A DWI arrest in New Jersey can seriously affect your life, regardless of whether you are convicted of an offense. If you have been arrested or charged with DWI, you need a knowledgeable and experienced DWI attorney to plan the best possible defense for you. We have dedicated 100% of our law practice at Levow & Associates to DWI defense. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we can help you, please contact us online or at (877) 593-1717.

More Blog Posts:

NJ DWI First Offense Cases, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, February 13, 2014

New Jersey DWI defense strategy: When other serious charges may affect your outcome, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, January 3, 2014

NJ DWI Breath Testing Fallacy, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, December 16, 2013

Photo credit: kropekk_pl [Public domain, CC0 1.0], via Pixabay.