Calibration problems show issues with breathalyzers do arise

A calibration problem with Massachusetts' breathalyzers shows that evidence from the devices is not always reliable.

Controversy led to question about whether evidence was faulty in some cases

Massachusetts is continuing to deal with the fallout from a problem with the breathalyzers police and prosecutors often rely on in drunk driving cases. According to Metro West Daily News, the problems with the devices may have been apparent to state officials well over a year before they became widely known to the public. The problem concerns a discrepancy between default calibration levels for the devices and calibration levels that are mandated by state law. The issue has led to numerous DUI cases being reviewed for possible faulty evidence and should serve as a reminder that breathalyzers are not always as reliable as their proponents make them out to be.

Calibration discrepancy

Breathalyzers must be calibrated to ensure that they are properly functioning. The calibration process consists of measuring a small sample of gas that has a 0.08 alcohol-concentration level. State law mandates that the machines return a reading between 0.074 and 0.086 in order to be considered properly calibrated. The problem with the breathalyzers used in Massachusetts is that their default settings, which are set by the manufacturer, allow the machines to pass the test with a broader reading between 0.070 and 0.090.

That discrepancy may have been known to officials at the Office of Alcohol Testing since February 2014, but it was not until earlier this year that the breathalyzer manufacturer was asked to correct the issue. The problem has led to evidence being questioned in numerous DUI cases, with some sentences being reduced as a result. Some prosecutors also stopped using breathalyzer tests as evidence until the problems were fixed.

Breathalyzer reliability

The issue became so serious because breathalyzer test results are often portrayed as being nearly 100-percent reliable by prosecutors and police. But as the Boston Globe points out, questions about the reliability of breathalyzer devices have long been an outstanding issue, particularly among defense attorneys and civil rights activists. One prominent trial lawyer, for example, called the reliance on breathalyzer evidence "morally wrong and legally indefensible."

Of course, breathalyzer test results are not often the only piece of evidence prosecutors use when pursuing DUI convictions, but they can prove highly persuasive. As the Globe also points out, when a breathalyzer test is administered, many defendants will choose not to fight the charges against them and instead enter a guilty plea in exchange for a more lenient sentence.

DUI charges

Being charged with DUI or OUI can be a frightening experience and defendants often feel helpless in such situations. As the above story shows, however, it is possible to fight against a charge of intoxicated driving, especially if issues arise concerning the reliability of evidence. A criminal defense lawyer, experienced in defending the rights of those accused of drunk driving, should be contacted immediately by anyone who has been charged with DUI.