5 things to remember about the big breath-alcohol testing story

Last week, we discussed the New York Times’ major investigation into the reliability of breathalyzer tests around the country. This was a big story because the Times found that breathalyzers from various manufacturers used around the country suffer from the same technical difficulties. Thousands of DUI cases are already being reopened in at least two states due to these problems.

This problem potentially affects millions of people in the U.S. alone. That’s because about a million Americans are arrested for DUI every year, and many are subjected to breathalyzer-style tests. The tests are used to legally justify the arrest, and juries generally take DUI test results at face value.

How many people have been falsely convicted based on inaccurate breath tests? It’s impossible to estimate, but probably a lot. Here are a few take-aways from the report:

Breath-alcohol tests can be wrong

The first thing to understand is that breathalyzer tests are not necessarily accurate. Even though they are marketed as providing precise results to the third decimal place, ordinary human error can lead to miscalibration of the machine. That miscalibration can exaggerate the subject’s blood-alcohol result.

The Times found examples of errors setting up the machines, departments skimping on maintenance, and do-it-yourself hacks being implemented to overcome problems with the devices.

The problems can be system-wide

In Massachusetts, when individual drivers began challenging the tests it soon became clear that the problem was systemic. In fact, the courts eventually ruled that every test done in that state for eight years was inadmissible. Thousands of cases will be reopened.

You can lose your license if you refuse the test

In most states, including Tennessee, drivers have little choice but to take these tests because the law assumes you have given your consent to blood or breath alcohol testing simply by driving. In Tennessee, a first offense for refusing a breath test results in a year’s license revocation.

The fix for flawed tests is to dismiss DUI cases

When systemic problems with the accuracy of breath testing machines are demonstrated to the courts, they have few options for dealing with the problem. Tests suspected to be inaccurate can’t be admitted as evidence. Therefore, many DUI cases are being dismissed for lack of evidence.

People are successfully challenging breath-test results

The problems the Times found were not limited to a couple of states. All around the country, defense attorneys are challenging breathalyzer tests due to suspected miscalibration of the machines and other issues.

If you have been arrested for DUI based on a breath-alcohol test, you should discuss your situation immediately with an experienced criminal defense attorney.

Skip to content