Articles Posted in Breath Testing

paperworkIn order to convict someone of driving while intoxicated (DWI), New Jersey prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person was impaired by alcohol or drugs. State law allows police to collect breath samples to test blood alcohol concentration (BAC) in suspected DWI cases. Police in New Jersey typically use a device known as an Alcotest, which analyzes breath samples provided by blowing into a tube. These devices require careful maintenance and calibration in order to produce reliable measurements. In October 2017, prosecutors in several New Jersey counties notified thousands of individuals with DWI convictions or pending charges that police may have mishandled BAC evidence in their cases. A specially appointed judge will determine whether any New Jersey DWI cases should be reviewed in light of this alleged misconduct.

New Jersey law creates an incentive for prosecutors to rely on BAC evidence. They can prove that a defendant was legally impaired through circumstantial evidence, such as an arresting officer’s testimony about a DWI defendant’s behavior and appearance. New Jersey’s DWI statute creates a presumption of impairment, however, when a defendant’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was 0.08 percent or higher at the time of, or within several hours of, their arrest. Penalties are also higher for first-time DWI convictions if the defendant’s BAC was 0.10 percent or greater.

The Alcotest device purports to measure the concentration of alcohol in a person’s blood by performing tests on samples of that person’s breath. This requires a certain amount of extrapolation using algorithms in the device’s programming. The device uses infrared technology and the process of electrochemical oxidation to test breath samples. This latter process is particularly sensitive to environmental factors like temperature and potential contaminants. The New Jersey Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in State v. Chun, in which we represented several appellants, established guidelines for the maintenance and calibration of these devices, as well as documentation to indicate when an Alcotest device was most recently serviced.

soap bubbleNew Jersey’s driving while intoxicated (DWI) statute allows prosecutors to use several methods to try to prove that a defendant was too impaired to operate a vehicle. One of these methods requires test results showing that a defendant’s blood alcohol content (BAC) was 0.08 percent or higher, the so-called “legal limit” for DWI. This is the preferred method for most prosecutors, and New Jersey law helps facilitate the collection of BAC evidence. Refusal to submit to a breath test is a separate traffic offense alongside DWI, punishable by a fine and license suspension. Courts have expanded the scope of the refusal statute beyond merely refusing even to attempt to provide a breath sample. The Alcotest device used by New Jersey police to measure BAC requires a sizeable sample, and a refusal charge can result from not trying hard enough. The New Jersey Appellate Division reviewed this sort of situation recently in its decision in State v. Hernandez.

Under New Jersey law, anyone operating a motor vehicle on a public road is deemed to have given their consent to providing a breath sample to police upon suspicion of DWI. This “implied consent” law overrides any concerns about Fourth Amendment rights against warrantless searches or Fifth Amendment rights regarding testifying against oneself. A conviction for a first refusal offense can result in a license suspension for seven months to one year. For a second offense, the period of suspension is two years. A 10-year license suspension comes with a third or subsequent conviction. Fines range from a minimum of $600 for a first offense to a maximum of $2,000 for a third or subsequent offense.

New Jersey police use a device known as the Alcotest 7110 MK III-C to measure BAC. A New Jersey Supreme Court decision from 2008, State v. Chun, established various standards and procedures for the Alcotest. The device requires a minimum sample size to ensure consistency and, to the greatest extent possible, accuracy. Most people must breathe into the device enough to produce 1.5 liters of air, although for women over the age of 60, this minimum amount is lowered to 1.2 liters. They must also breathe into the device for at least four and a half seconds, something that may not be possible for some people. Courts have attempted to distinguish between people who are incapable of providing a sufficient breath sample and those who could provide a sample but do not do so.

Continue reading

Unbalanced scalesDriving while intoxicated (DWI) is a traffic offense, rather than a criminal offense, under New Jersey law. Most—although not all—of the protections offered in criminal prosecutions by the U.S. and New Jersey Constitutions apply to DWI cases. The guarantee of due process in legal proceedings, found in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, is one of the most important protections. New Jersey’s DWI statute creates a legal presumption of intoxication for anyone whose blood alcohol content (BAC) is 0.08 percent or higher. The New Jersey Appellate Division discussed whether this violates due process back in 1959, in State v. Protokowicz. Despite its age, the case still has relevance to DWI defense today.

The term “due process” generally means the right to fair legal proceedings. The U.S. Constitution states twice that no one may “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Courts have interpreted the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause to apply to the federal government, while the Fourteenth Amendment applies to the states. The New Jersey Constitution also provides for due process in Article I, section 1, stating that “[a]ll persons…have certain natural and unalienable rights,” including “those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, [and] of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property.”

The New Jersey DWI statute defines the offense in two ways. A person commits the offense if (1) they “operate[] a motor vehicle while under the influence” of alcohol or drugs, or (2) drive with a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher. In the second type of DWI, BAC evidence creates a presumption that a defendant was “under the influence.” State laws requiring drivers to submit to breath testing facilitate the collection of BAC evidence. Since this presumption seems to put a DWI defendant at a disadvantage from the very beginning, does it pose due process problems?

Continue reading

iPhone 5SThe Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right against self-incrimination. The extent of this protection is not always clear, however, and the right to refuse to provide information to police has limits. In driving while intoxicated (DWI) investigations, suspects are often asked to provide breath samples for chemical testing. The evidence obtained from breath testing can provide the state with nearly all of the information it needs to bring a DWI charge. In New Jersey DWI cases, providing a breath sample is actually mandatory under the law. Is this the sort of self-incrimination covered by the Fifth Amendment? A long line of court decisions says that no, it is not, but understanding why may be helpful in understanding the rights a DWI defendant does have.

Under New Jersey law, a refusal to submit a breath sample for chemical testing, upon a request by police, is a motor vehicle offense punishable by a fine and a driver’s license suspension. New Jersey courts have imposed strict requirements for submitting to breath testing. Anything other than unambiguous agreement could constitute refusal. A 2007 decision from the New Jersey Appellate Division, State v. Spell, held that a DWI suspect has no right to request testing after they have already refused. In that case, the defendant claimed he was having chest pains and could not provide a breath sample, but he told an officer he was feeling better after a hour. He offered to submit a sample at that time, but the officer “declined because defendant had already refused.”

The Fifth Amendment states that “no person…shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” This applies to sworn testimony in a court of law, which is where we get the term “pleading the Fifth.” It also protects the “right to remain silent” during custodial police interrogations, which generally means after a person has been placed under arrest and advised of their rights. In most situations, a person must affirmatively state that they are invoking their right against self-incrimination, or else police may continue questioning them.

Interrogation Room at Alcatraz IslandWhen police detain and question a person on suspicion of driving while intoxicated (DWI), the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution protect that person’s rights. The Fourteenth Amendment officially extended most of the Bill of Rights to state-level law enforcement, meaning that local police are subject to the same constraints as the federal government. In the context of New Jersey DWI cases, the Fourth Amendment states that police cannot detain someone, such as by pulling over their vehicle, without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. The Fifth Amendment states that a defendant cannot be forced to testify against themselves, and limits the state’s ability to use certain statements made by defendants against them in court. Exactly when this right against self-incrimination applies has been a matter of ongoing dispute in the courts. The U.S. Supreme Court has made several rulings specifically addressing incriminating statements in DWI cases.

The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case addressing the right against self-incrimination during police interrogation is Miranda v. Arizona, decided in 1966. Information obtained by police from a person, after they have invoked their “right to remain silent” during “custodial interrogation,” is inadmissible in court. While people can refuse to answer police questions at almost any time, Miranda obligates police to advise people of their rights in specific scenarios. Many subsequent court decisions have found that Miranda only applies once a person has been formally placed under arrest and read this list of rights. Whether a person is “under arrest” during a traffic stop is a complicated question.

Police do not typically give Miranda warnings to DWI suspects at the beginning of a traffic stop. Still, officers may ask questions of a driver, and ask the driver to perform field sobriety tests. With some exceptions, courts do not consider this to be a “custodial interrogation” within the meaning of Miranda. Police are therefore not obligated to advise people of their Miranda rights at this point, placing the burden of invoking the right against self-incrimination on the driver.
Continue reading

Ice waterNew Jersey law allows prosecutors to offer evidence of driving while intoxicated (DWI) in two ways. One way relies on evidence like testimony by police officers about outward signs of intoxication, including appearance and behavior. The second method involves evidence that a defendant’s blood alcohol content (BAC) was above a certain level. This is often known as “per se” DWI because the BAC evidence creates a presumption that the defendant was impaired by alcohol. A DWI defense strategy should take both methods of proving DWI into consideration. Defending against a per se DWI charge in New Jersey often involves challenging police equipment more than police witnesses. The Appellate Division recently considered an appeal of a per se DWI conviction in State v. Page.

The DWI statute defines the offense as driving either “while under the the influence” of alcohol or drugs or with a BAC of at least 0.08 percent. The latter definition constitutes per se DWI. It does not necessarily require any evidence other than the defendant’s actual or imminent operation of a motor vehicle and the defendant’s BAC at or near that time. It is possible to obtain an acquittal or dismissal in a DWI case even with evidence of a BAC over 0.08 percent. It is also possible, however, for the state to obtain a conviction without BAC evidence or with a BAC of less than 0.08 percent.

New Jersey courts have established a variety of procedures and protocols that police must follow in an effort to ensure the accuracy of BAC test results. Police in this state commonly use a device known as the Alcotest to measure BAC. The defendant must provide a breath sample by blowing into a tube. The device then measures the alcohol content of the sample. The Alcotest requires regular maintenance and careful calibration, and it can produce inaccurate results without either of these. A 2008 decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court, State v. Chun, establishes maintenance and record-keeping protocols that police must follow for Alcotest results to be admissible in court. It also requires police to observe a DWI suspect for 20 minutes before administering the test.

Continue reading

blood cellsEvidence of a driver’s blood alcohol content (BAC) is a critical tool for prosecutors in driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases. Under the New Jersey DWI statute, a driver with a BAC of at least 0.08 percent is presumed to be impaired. BAC evidence can come from tests on a sample of a driver’s breath or blood. Because of the importance of BAC evidence in DWI cases, New Jersey makes it a separate traffic offense to refuse to submit a breath sample, punishable with a fine and license suspension. Some states make refusal a criminal offense, meaning that it could result in jail time, and require submission to both breath and blood testing. The U.S. Supreme Court considered a Fourth Amendment challenge to criminal refusal statutes last year. Although New Jersey’s refusal statute does not impose criminal penalties or require blood testing, the court’s ruling in Birchfield v. North Dakota is important for DWI defendants all over the country.

Anyone who drives on public roads in New Jersey has, according to state law, given their implied consent to breath testing in a DWI investigation. This allows the state to charge anyone who refuses to submit a breath sample with a traffic offense. New Jersey law does not require drivers to submit to blood testing, however, unless police obtain a warrant. The defendants in Birchfield challenged statutes in Minnesota and North Dakota that impose criminal penalties for refusal. The North Dakota law included both breath and blood samples.

The Fourth Amendment generally prohibits “searches and seizures” without a warrant supported by probable cause to believe that a search will yield evidence or contraband. Numerous courts have held that breath and blood testing are “searches” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Courts have also recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement, however. The “search incident to arrest” exception, for example, allows police to search a person during an arrest. Police may also claim that “exigent circumstances,” such as the imminent destruction of evidence, made waiting to obtain a warrant impractical.

Cell Block DiagramPolice departments throughout New Jersey use the Alcotest 7110 MKIII-c device to conduct breath tests on individuals suspected of driving while intoxicated (DWI) in order to determine a person’s blood alcohol content (BAC). Accuracy is critical for these devices, since state law imposes penalties based almost entirely on BAC.

State law creates two tiers of first-time DWI offenses based solely on BAC. A BAC of 0.08 percent or above creates a presumption of impairment. For first offenders, penalties are greater if the BAC is at least 0.10 percent. Blood testing generally provides a more accurate BAC result than breath testing, but as the Chun decision notes, it presents “obvious practical and logistical problems.” Breath testing requires neither a warrant nor a medical professional. All police departments in this state have used the Alcotest since 2008, some since 2005. The device can only provide an “estimation of BAC,” based on the passage of alcohol from the digestive system to the circulatory and then respiratory system. It uses two methods to measure alcohol concentration, which Chun describes as “infrared (IR) technology and electric chemical (EC) oxidation in a fuel cell.” The EC measurement is the more controversial of the two.

The Alcotest’s EC technology creates a catalytic reaction that oxidizes alcohol in the breath sample, creating an electrical charge that the device can measure. The accuracy of this measurement requires careful maintenance. A “simulator solution” used to calibrate the device must be maintained at a precise temperature. Chun requires the use of a thermometer that meets standards set by a federal agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Continue reading

Music-breathNew Jersey prosecutors often rely on evidence of a defendant’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to prove guilt in driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases. Police officers typically determine a person’s BAC by testing a breath sample. All police departments in this state use a device known as the Alcotest for this purpose. The Alcotest is prone to errors, and it requires continual maintenance. We were involved in a New Jersey Supreme Court case, State v. Chun, that established specific procedures police must follow to maintain the Alcotest device. Failure to follow these procedures ought to result in suppression of the breath testing results. A pending lawsuit in a New Jersey federal court is calling thousands of Alcotest results into question due to allegedly fraudulent records. The plaintiff in Ortiz v. New Jersey State Police claims that thousands of DWI defendants throughout the state would have challenged the BAC evidence in their cases, had they known about the alleged failure to follow the procedures established by Chun.

Prosecutors can establish the required elements of DWI without BAC evidence, but state law gives them a compelling reason to prefer such evidence. A defendant with BAC of 0.08 percent or higher—commonly known as the “legal limit”—is presumed to be impaired within the meaning of the DWI statute. BAC of 0.10 percent or higher can result in even greater penalties. Anyone driving a vehicle on public roads in New Jersey, according to state law, has given implied consent to provide a breath sample on suspicion of DWI, and refusal to do so is a separate motor vehicle offense.

Devices that purportedly use a breath sample to measure BAC first appeared in the mid-20th century. The Alcotest 7110 MKIII-C became the device for New Jersey law enforcement during the early 2000s. It uses two methods to measure BAC: infrared spectroscopy and electrochemical cell technology. Regular maintenance and careful calibration are what the State says make the process reliable. The purpose of the Chun decision was to attempt to ensure that this happens.
Continue reading

roadNew Jersey’s driving while intoxicated (DWI) laws allow prosecutors to prove impairment by alcohol in several ways. Evidence of blood alcohol content (BAC), determined by a breath, blood, or urine test, is a well-known method. Prosecutors may also offer witness testimony, particularly testimony by an arresting officer and others who observed the defendant at the time of the arrest. The New Jersey Supreme Court has held that no particular expertise is required to form an opinion, which would be admissible in court, that a person is intoxicated based on observation of the person. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently ruled in State v. Colabella that a BAC below the legal limit for DWI did not supersede officer testimony regarding a defendant’s intoxication in a DWI case. Even though the person’s BAC was not high enough to create a presumption of impairment, the court accepted other evidence.

A BAC of 0.08 percent creates a presumption of intoxication under New Jersey law. This BAC amount is commonly known as the “legal limit” for DWI, and a DWI offense based on BAC evidence is often known as “per se DWI.” New Jersey law makes it a separate offense to refuse to submit to breath testing. This indicates how important the state considers BAC evidence, but it is not absolutely required for a DWI conviction. The DWI statute defines the offense as driving “while under the influence of intoxicating liquor” or other substances, or with a BAC of 0.08 or higher. Prosecutors can introduce evidence that someone was “under the influence” through officer testimony about how the defendant was driving, their demeanor and appearance, the odor of alcohol, and their performance on field sobriety tests (FSTs).

The defendant in Colabella challenged a DWI conviction when BAC test results showed a BAC below the legal limit. According to the Appellate Division’s opinion, an officer pulled the defendant over for an illegal turn and an expired inspection sticker. The officer testified at trial that he detected a “strong odor of alcohol” coming from the vehicle. He also stated that the defendant had “slow and slurred” speech and “blood shot and watery” eyes, all indicators of alcohol impairment. The defendant reportedly admitted to consuming one beer and some ibuprofen.

Continue reading