Articles Posted in Breath Testing

In order to prove that a person has committed the offense of driving while intoxicated (DWI), the state must prove impairment by alcohol or another intoxicating substance. Prosecutors can do this in several ways, including blood alcohol content (BAC) based on a blood or breath test. A BAC of 0.08 percent or higher is presumed to be evidence of impairment. It is possible for a court to convict a person of DWI in the absence of BAC evidence, or even with a BAC that is below 0.08 percent, based on other evidence of impairment. Could a person with a BAC above 0.08 percent, on the other hand, overcome the presumption of impairment? A recent case out of New York shows how a rare medical condition led to an unusually high BAC result, although this is not likely to be a common defense.

New Jersey’s DWI statute specifically mentions a BAC of 0.08 percent or above in its definition of the offense, but it also states that a person commits DWI if they drive “while under the influence of intoxicating liquor” or a similar substance. Drivers in New Jersey are subject to the implied consent law regarding breath testing, meaning that they can be penalized for refusing to submit a breath sample. Even without BAC evidence, prosecutors may prove impairment through other means, such as field sobriety tests performed during a traffic stop. An officer can testify about observations like slurred speech or an alcohol odor. If the state has BAC test results above the legal limit, however, prosecutors may not bother with an officer’s testimony as much, which appears to have been a factor in the recent New York case.

According to local news coverage, police in the Buffalo, New York area stopped a 35-year-old schoolteacher one evening in October 2014, based on a 911 caller’s report of a vehicle driving erratically. The officer claimed to have smelled alcohol and stated that the defendant’s speech was slurred, and her eyes appeared “bloodshot” and “glassy.” The defendant reportedly admitted to having three cocktails several hours earlier. Her BAC test results, however, showed 0.33 percent, which is over four times the legal limit and close to the point of medical emergency. Despite this result, her condition did not match that of someone about to go into a coma.

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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 Bill of Rights contains numerous important protections for people against possible overreach by the government, especially in prosecutions for alleged offenses. The Fifth Amendment protects a very important right:  the privilege against self-incrimination. This means that a court cannot compel a person to testify against themselves in a criminal trial. A person invoking this privilege is often said to be “taking the Fifth.” The laws that deal with driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey and many other states, however, seem to conflict with this privilege in some ways, such as by requiring drivers to submit to breath testing. It is worth looking more closely at these laws, and how the U.S. Supreme Court and New Jersey courts have interpreted them in light of the Bill of Rights.

The state can present statements made by a defendant as evidence of guilt at trial, with some important restrictions. One of the most famous decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, Miranda v. Arizona in 1966, established that law enforcement officers must advise a suspect of certain constitutional rights before conducting a “custodial interrogation.” The warning that has resulted from this ruling, known as the “Miranda warning,” includes the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and the Sixth Amendment right to an attorney.

Officers must read the Miranda warning to a suspect at about the same time they place the suspect under formal arrest, and before they begin asking direct questions about the alleged offense. These are the two elements of a “custodial interrogation,” and they must be present for Miranda to apply. Statements made by a suspect during a custodial interrogation are inadmissible in court if the suspect has not been “Mirandized.”

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A common misconception in driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases involves breath testing and blood alcohol content (BAC). New Jersey’s DWI statute states that a person who operates a vehicle with a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher commits a violation, but this is not the only way the state can prove intoxication or impairment. The statute actually defines the offense in two ways:  driving with a BAC above a minimum amount, or driving “under the influence” of alcohol or other drugs. Even without any BAC evidence, prosecutors may still be able to prove that a defendant was “under the influence,” intoxicated, or otherwise impaired. The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court issued a ruling several months ago in State v. Kessler, which identified various methods of presenting evidence of intoxication or impairment.

A police officer pulled the defendant over at about 1:22 a.m. He had allegedly observed the defendant swerve from the left lane of the highway into the center lane, putting him in the path of a tractor-trailer. He also claimed that the defendant was driving without his headlights on. The officer testified that the defendant’s eyes appeared “bloodshot and watery,” and the officer could smell alcohol. The defendant allegedly refused to submit a breath sample and did not perform well on several field sobriety tests (FSTs).

The defendant was charged with DWI, refusal to submit to breath testing, reckless driving, and other offenses. At trial in the municipal court, the defendant presented testimony from several expert witnesses. One witness testified about difficulties faced by some people on the horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test. Another witness testified about conditions, both congenital and injury-related, affecting the ability to perform FSTs like the walk-and-turn and one-leg-stand tests. The defendant denied drinking any alcohol on the night of his arrest.

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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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A person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) at the time of an arrest for suspected driving while intoxicated (DWI) is not the only factor police and prosecutors may take into account. Numerous other factors come into play, and a person could be charged with DWI or related offenses even if chemical testing shows a low BAC. This was demonstrated by the recent arrest of a man for intoxication manslaughter, despite a breath test reportedly showing BAC below the legal limit. Defending a case without BAC evidence, or with BAC results that are less than 0.08 percent, presents different challenges than a case that relies on breath or blood testing.

Police arrested a man in Austin, Texas in mid-January 2015 after the pickup truck he was driving allegedly collided with another vehicle at about 1:40 a.m. The driver of the other vehicle was pronounced dead at the scene. The driver of the pickup truck allegedly told officers that he had had two beers at a bar earlier. He also allegedly admitted running a stop sign immediately before the collision.

A portable breathalyzer test showed a BAC of 0.07 percent, below the legal limit of 0.08 percent. Officers at the scene, however, stated that they observed enough other factors to conclude that he was legally impaired, and that probable cause existed to charge him with intoxication manslaughter, a specific offense under Texas law. The fact that this case involved a fatality undoubtedly played a role in the decision to charge the driver with an alcohol-related offense despite the BAC results, but the state is not required to demonstrate a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher to prove DWI in all cases. This is true in New Jersey as well as Texas.

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New Jersey’s legal system has developed several methods to discourage people with convictions for driving while intoxicated (DWI) and related offenses from getting behind the wheel after drinking. Along with every other state and the District of Columbia, New Jersey requires the use of ignition interlock devices (IIDs) in certain situations. At least one state has gone much further in restricting people with convictions, or even just arrests, for DWI and other offenses. Utah’s “alcohol restricted driver” (ARD) law prohibits drivers from operating a vehicle with any alcohol in their system for periods ranging from two to ten years, with a lifetime ban in some circumstances.

In order to start a vehicle equipped with an IID, the person must blow into the device, which operates much like a breathalyzer or other breath-test machine. If the device determines that the driver’s blood alcohol content (BAC) is above a threshold amount, which is usually 0.05 percent in New Jersey, it prevents the vehicle from starting for a period of several hours. The “legal limit” for DWI is 0.08 percent.

New Jersey’s DWI statute makes installation of an IID mandatory for offenses involving a BAC result of 0.15 percent or higher, as well as first-offense convictions for refusal to submit to chemical testing. A judge has discretion to order an IID for lesser offenses. Driving with a BAC above the IID amount, but below the legal limit of 0.08 percent, is not automatically a violation under New Jersey law, but any attempt to circumvent the IID, including by driving someone else’s car after drinking, is considered a violation.
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New Jersey law contains two different, but related, provisions related to driving while intoxicated (DWI). The DWI statute addresses the actual alleged act of driving while under the influence of alcohol or another intoxicating substance. The refusal statute deals with drivers who refuse to submit to breath or blood testing to determine the amount of alcohol in their bloodstreams. State law requires police to read a statement to a suspect regarding the consequences of refusing to submit to chemical testing. A recent court decision, State v. Peralta, clarifies whether a failure to read that statement requires a court to dismiss any resulting charges. An unpublished court decision from about four years ago, State v. Tirado, suggested that such failure requires dismissal of all charges, even DWI, but Peralta holds that it only affects the outcome of a refusal charge. Peralta effectively overrules Tirado, which offered a loophole as a sort of defense in DWI cases.

The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission has issued a “Standard Statement for Operators of a Motor Vehicle” (“Standard Statement”), which police must recite to a suspect before administering a blood or breath test. Refusal to submit to testing may result in license suspension, a fine, and other penalties. Courts have generally held that reading the Standard Statement is required to obtain a conviction for refusal, but Tirado, a 2010 decision by the Superior Court, Appellate Division, expanded this to a DWI case. The court found that the state had not proven that an officer read the Standard Statement to the defendant before administering a breathalyzer test and partly reversed the defendant’s DWI conviction as a result. Since the decision is unpublished, it is not binding authority in other DWI cases, but it has come up in cases where police made similar omissions.

In Peralta, a municipal judge convicted the defendant of DWI based on evidence from a breathalyzer test that showed 0.19 percent blood alcohol content (BAC), more than twice the legal limit. The defendant, who was not charged with refusal, appealed the DWI conviction in part based on the failure by police to read the Standard Statement before administering the breath test. The court noted that the defendant relied on an unpublished case in making his argument but does not identify the case. It held that the failure to read the Standard Statement was not relevant to the DWI case. Continue reading

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