Articles Posted in Alcotest

A federal court of appeals recently ruled that part of a lawsuit filed by two former Houston Police Department (HPD) crime lab employees may continue in trial court. The plaintiffs in Culbertson v. Lykos allege that they faced retaliation by multiple officials after they exposed problems with the HPD’s Breath Alcohol Testing (BAT) vans, vehicles used as mobile sites for breath testing of DWI suspects. The allegations led to an investigation of HPD and the Harris County District Attorney (DA), and a review of multiple DWI cases. Breath testing devices require careful calibration and regular maintenance, and the misuse of a device ought to bring an end to a DWI prosecution. The matter is somewhat reminiscent of our efforts to establish guidelines for the use of Alcotest devices by New Jersey law enforcement, which resulted in the New Jersey Supreme Court’s ruling in State v. Chun.

Houston, Texas first approved funds for six BAT vans in late 2007 for use “as mobile Intoxilyzer units for the processing of DWI suspects.” The vans reportedly entered into service in 2010. DWI defense advocates shortly began raising concerns about the accuracy and reliability of mobile breath-testing devices.

The plaintiffs in Culberson worked as a criminal specialist and a criminalist in HPD’s crime lab. They both resigned in 2011, partly due to “dissatisfaction with the BAT vans.” One plaintiff, the criminal specialist, was subpoenaed by the DA to testify at a DWI trial in May 2011. She reportedly testified that she inspected the BAT vans and found them to be in working order, but she would not testify that they were working properly at the time the defendant was tested. The jury returned an acquittal.

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The New Jersey Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in State v. Chun is one of the most important decisions affecting the rights of DWI defendants in this state. It caused major changes in how the state uses Alcotest machines to collect breath samples from DWI suspects. Chun also established mandatory procedures that safeguard DWI suspects against inaccurate test results, including a 20-minute waiting period prior to a breath test. In some situations, however, an individual could open themselves up to a charge of refusal to submit to a breath test, if an officer concludes that they are intentionally stalling.

Chun established that an officer must wait 20 minutes before collecting breath samples from a suspect, in order to ensure that no foreign substances are present in or around the suspect’s mouth that could affect the test results. During this time, the officer who will administer the test must observe the suspect to see if they place anything in their mouth, or if they swallow or regurgitate anything. If the officer notices anything entering or exiting the person’s mouth, notices that the person has gum or chewing tobacco in their mouth, or sees the person touch their mouth with their hand or any other object, the 20-minute observation period must start over.

This waiting period could come into conflict with New Jersey laws regarding implied consent to breath or blood testing. An individual who is instructed to provide a breath sample based on probable cause to suspect DWI may face a separate charge for refusal if they give anything short of total cooperation to the officer. Courts have sustained refusal convictions in cases where individuals failed to submit enough of a sample for the device to conduct an accurate test, and even cases in which a defendant agreed to submit a breath sample but tried to add a condition for doing so. This raises the question of whether a New Jersey DWI defendant could face a refusal charge for requiring multiple re-starts of the 20-minute Chun observation period.

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A defendant in a DWI case, State v. Arbuckle, appealed his conviction after a trial de novo in the Superior Court, Law Division. He argued in part that the court erred in admitting Alcotest results into evidence. The Appellate Division noted that the lower court had applied factors established by the New Jersey Supreme Court in State v. Chun when it reviewed the arresting officer’s conduct in administering the Alcotest. Chun was a landmark 2008 decision regarding the use of Alcotest machines by New Jersey law enforcement. We represented one of the defendants in that case and participated in the argument.

In the present case, the defendant was arrested shortly after 2:00 a.m. on January 26, 2013. The arresting officer reportedly responded to “an anonymous call that a snow plow was recklessly kicking up dirt and rocks” in the parking lot of a club in Manville, New Jersey. The officer observed the defendant in a vehicle “with its plow down despite the lack of snow on the roads.” He claimed to have smelled alcohol on the defendant’s breath and stated that the defendant admitted to drinking. The officer testified that he terminated the field sobriety tests because the defendant could not keep his balance. He placed the defendant under arrest and took him to the station for breath testing.

Under Chun, an officer administering an Alcotest must wait 20 minutes before collecting a breath sample because of the risk of a false reading caused by residual alcohol in a person’s mouth. They must observe the person for the entire 20-minute period to make sure that no additional alcohol gets into the person’s mouth. The 20-minute period must start over if the person vomits or otherwise regurgitates, if they swallow anything, or if the operator notices any foreign object in the person’s mouth, such as gum or chewing tobacco. According to a 2012 Appellate Division ruling, State v. Carrero, the operator does not have to maintain eye contact with the person for the entire 20 minutes. They are only required to maintain as much visual contact as is needed to determine if they have “ingested or regurgitated something that would confound the Alcotest results.”

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Are breath or blood test results required to prove that a driver was legally intoxicated? While test results showing blood alcohol content (BAC) above 0.08 percent might be the most well-known means of proving intoxication, it is not the only means. A defendant recently asked a New Jersey appellate court to reverse his DWI conviction, arguing that the state lacked sufficient evidence to prove DWI without BAC evidence. The trial court had based its decision on testimony from the arresting officers. The appellate court reviewed New Jersey law regarding how the state may prove impairment in a DWI case, and it affirmed the convictions in State v. Robinson in February 2015.

According to the court’s opinion, the arresting officers observed the defendant’s pickup truck at about 2:00 a.m., traveling on I-287 at between 80 and 85 miles per hour and changing lanes without signaling. The defendant, after pulling over, reportedly told the officers that he had just worked a 14-hour shift, was very tired, and simply wanted to go home. The officers stated that they did not detect any odor of alcohol, although they claimed that defendant’s speech “was a little slurred.” They accepted his explanation, cited him for careless driving, and warned him against speeding.

At that point, according to the officers, the defendant “bolted” in his truck, quickly accelerating back to around 85 miles per hour. The officers testified that they had to drive close to 100 miles per hour to overtake him. The other officer spoke to the defendant when he pulled over. He also did not notice any alcohol smell, but he claimed that the defendant had difficulty getting his driver’s license out of his wallet. This officer had the defendant perform several field sobriety tests, including the walk and turn test and the one-legged stand test. He claimed the defendant did poorly on both. At this point, the officers arrested the defendant for DWI.

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For more than eight years, our law firm has been principally involved in challenges to the Alcotest device, which the state uses to measure blood alcohol content (BAC) in DWI cases. We represented the lead defendant in a 2008 case, State v. Chun, in which the New Jersey Supreme Court established strict guidelines for the admissibility of Alcotest results and required multiple changes to the device’s software. Unfortunately, New Jersey courts have since rolled back those protections, starting with a 2011 ruling in State v. Holland. We went back to court in the Chun case in 2013 to challenge the state’s failure to do what the Court ordered in 2008. While the court ruled that the state may continue using the Alcotest device, the state will have to find an alternative soon. The German company Draeger, which manufactures the Alcotest, will no longer offer a warranty for the device after 2016.

The state continues to use the Alcotest 7110 MKIII-C device, with the New Jersey State Police offering operator certification and re-certification training for state, county, and local law enforcement. A person whose BAC is 0.08 percent or higher is presumed to be intoxicated under state law. BAC evidence is not necessarily required to prove DWI in court, but without it, prosecutors must rely on physical observations of alleged intoxication. While witness testimony is subject to cross-examination and challenge on a wide range of issues, a defendant typically may only challenge BAC evidence based on the device’s maintenance, calibration, and proper functioning. The Alcotest device has raised many questions in these areas.

In Chun, we challenged the scientific reliability of the Alcotest device, which uses two methods to measure alcohol concentration in a breath sample. The court’s decision describes how the device captures the breath sample in a chamber, where it uses infrared energy to calculate the alcohol content based on energy absorption. The second method takes part of the breath sample from the infrared chamber and applies voltage to oxidize the alcohol. This creates electricity, which the device measures to determine the alcohol amount. The device requires careful calibration, with a period of at least 20 minutes between calibration and use. Continue reading

The New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division considered the appeal of a DWI defendant in State v. Lobo that challenged the admissibility of Alcotest results. The defendant argued in part that the state’s failure to provide him with complete repair and maintenance records for the device used to test his blood alcohol content (BAC) entitled him to relief on appeal. The state’s case relied on results from an Alcotest device, which has been sufficiently controversial that the state plans on retiring it. The court rejected each of the defendant’s points of error and affirmed the conviction.

The defendant was arrested on April 29, 2011 after a traffic stop. At a State Police barracks, officers administered a breath test using a Dräger Alcotest 7110 MK III-C device. The test showed a BAC of 0.13 percent, and the defendant was charged with DWI. The court ordered the state to produce repair records and other information regarding the Alcotest device. Prosecutors later informed the court that some repair records were not available, leading the court to modify its order to require production of “repair records that exist.”

Based on the information obtained about the device, the defendant moved to dismiss the case or exclude the Alcotest results on multiple grounds. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion. The defendant entered a conditional guilty plea, which allowed him to preserve the issues raised in his motion to dismiss for appeal. Continue reading

NJ DWI prosecutions are about to change significantly. Due to litigation in a case that I filed in front of the New Jersey Supreme Court, State v. Chun, the state has acknowledged that the Alcotest test machine is being scrapped in New Jersey.

Five years ago, in March 2008, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered nine software changes to the Alcotest machine in order to make it reliable for use in New Jersey. This was after three years of litigation as to the scientific reliability of the machine. However, in the five years since the Chun decision, the State has implemented none of the required software changes to the machine.

In December 2012, we discovered that the data posted online from machines statewide was incomplete and corrupted. As a result, along with co-counsel, I filed a motion to compel the State to reformat the online information, and to comply with the original Chun order. The State replied to the motion, admitting that the online information was, in fact, incomplete. The State further indicated that it did not and could not comply with the Supreme Court order from 2008. In its responsive brief, the State asks that the Supreme Court absolve it of the requirement to fix the software in the Alcotest. The State announced that the Alcotest was going to be retired by the end of 2016, and that it was seeking a new breath testing instrument by that time. Rather than implement any new software, and to avoid any further challenges to the scientific reliability of the machine, the state asked the Supreme Court to allow it to continue using the Alcotest until it found a new machine by the end of 2016.

The most important case in New Jersey DWI history is State v. Chun, decided in 2008, which set the standards for DWI defense and prosecution for breath testing cases statewide. Despite significant evidence to the contrary, the New Jersey Supreme Court in Chun determined that the new Draeger Alcotest 7110 MKIII-C breath testing machine was scientifically reliable.

In Chun, the reliability of the machine was based on the safeguards of the testing procedure, one of which was an apparatus known as an Ertco-Hart Digital Thermometer. This thermometer insures that the temperature of the various simulator solutions used for calibration of the Alcotest during the control and linearity testing are at the required 34.0 degrees Celsius, with a tolerance of plus or minus 0.2 degrees.

These Ertco-Hart digital thermometers were calibrated by Draeger, which also supplied a NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) Certificate of Traceability with each calibration. Draeger, however, decided it would no longer produce the certificates of calibration, and the Ertco-Hart digital thermometer used by the State is no longer manufactured. As a result, the required calibration had to be done with a different digital thermometer.

In a New Jersey DWI case, there are many documents that the State must provide you so that you can defend your case. This is called “discovery”. The discovery includes everything from the stop of your vehicle, through the roadside testing, to the breath or blood testing, and your release from police custody.

In order for the prosecutor to get Alcotest results admitted into evidence against you, the State must establish that: (1) the machine was in working order and had been inspected according to procedure; (2) the police officer who ran the testing on the machine was certified to do so; and, (3) the test was administered according to official procedure.

A significant challenge to the machine and admission of the Alcotest results is whether the machine was in “proper working order”. There are three core foundational documents that the State must admit into evidence to establish this:

If you were arrested for a New Jersey DWI, and you submitted breath samples at the police station, your breath testing was done on a Draeger Alcotest 7110 MKIII-C machine. There are many components to a DWI arrest, and it is important to understand how each part can be challenged. For example, if the machine was not calibrated properly, the breath test results can be suppressed, or thrown out.

Calibrating the machine involves running several tests on it with different alcohol “simulator” solutions. The solutions must be heated to 34 degrees Celsius, plus or minus 0.2 degrees. This temperature is supposed to simulate the temperature of human breath, however, studies have demonstrated human breath to be closer to 35 degrees. This difference in temperature can cause more than 6% error in the ultimate breath test result.

Appropriate temperatures are determined using an external NIST traceable temperature probe. NIST is the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which establishes and maintains basic international standards of measurement. The temperature probe is used to ensure the proper temperature of the solutions just before the calibration of the Alcotest.

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