Court Reviews Accuracy of Alcotest Device Used in New Jersey DWI Cases

New Jersey law allows prosecutors to establish that a defendant charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI) was legally impaired by showing that the amount of alcohol in their blood around the time of their arrest was above a minimum amount. Most police departments in New Jersey use a device known as an Alcotest to determine BAC by testing a sample of a suspect’s breath. In order to ensure that a device gives accurate readings, it must have regular maintenance and calibration. A 2008 New Jersey Supreme Court decision, State v. Chun, established standards and procedures that police must follow regarding both the maintenance of the device and the manner in which breath samples are obtained. In 2016, a State Police Sergeant was accused of submitting false Alcotest maintenance reports. This led to an order staying all pending New Jersey DWI cases that might involve evidence obtained from devices serviced by this officer. A recent report from a court-appointed special master stated that the improper calibration “undermine[s] or call[s] into question the scientific reliability of breath tests performed” with those devices.

An individual is presumed to be legally impaired, for the purpose of the New Jersey DWI statute, if their BAC is 0.08 percent or more. Prosecutors have used a variety of devices over the years, often collectively known as “breathalyzers,” to measure BAC from breath samples. New Jersey police began using the Alcotest device in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. By the mid-2000’s, most police departments around the state were using this device. Since a defendant’s BAC measurement is one of the state’s most important pieces of evidence, confirming that the Alcotest reliably gives accurate readings is critically important. We were involved in the Chun case, which resulted in a series of standards for maintaining and calibrating Alcotest devices, and procedures for reporting on the devices’ regular maintenance.

The chemical processes that the Alcotest device uses to measure BAC require careful calibration. The device uses “simulator solutions” as controls, which must be kept within a specified temperature range. The individual performing the calibration must use a certain type of thermometer to measure the temperatures of the solutions. If any of the solutions are not within the required temperature range, the device may not give accurate readings. Chun states that maintenance reports, showing that calibrations were performed within these guidelines, must be made available to defendants or their counsel.

In September 2016, prosecutors charged a State Police Sergeant with falsifying records, tampering with public records, and official misconduct. He was accused of failing to perform the required calibration, but filing reports stating that the calibration was done correctly. This reportedly called into question the evidence used in about 20,000 DWI cases in five New Jersey counties: Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, Somerset and Union.

The New Jersey Supreme Court issued an order in November 2017 staying all pending DWI cases that involved Alcotest devices calibrated by this sergeant. The court had appointed a special master earlier in 2017 to conduct an evidentiary hearing. The special master issued her 218-page report in May 2018, concluding that the BAC results in more than 20,000 cases were questionable.

If you are facing charges of alleged DWI in a New Jersey court, DWI attorney Evan Levow can guide you through the legal process, help you understand your rights, and work with you to prepare the best possible defense for your case. Please contact us at (877) 593-1717 or online today to schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team.

More Blog Posts:

Evidence in New Jersey DWI Cases, Part 2: Chemical Testing, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, December 28, 2017

Alleged Mishandling of DWI Evidence by New Jersey Law Enforcement Official Could Affect Thousands of Cases, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, December 2, 2017

How Failing to Provide Enough of a Breath Sample Can Lead to a Refusal Charge in New Jersey, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, October 25, 2017