Massachusetts Breathalyzer Reliability in Question

April 24, 2015  –  by Liam Scully

Are breathalyzer results reliable?  Should they be used as evidence in a DUI case?  For years some lawyers have questioned the use of such evidence, comparing it to a polygraph, or lie detector test, saying that they are known to work improperly and give misreads. Now there comes word that State Prosecutors were informed in mid-March by the Office of Alcohol Testing there was an issue with tests given to several identified defendants. The problem seems to stem from some machines not being properly calibrated.  The Massachusetts State Police is conducing an investigation, and in the wake of that several counties have suspended using the results of breathalyzer tests for the time being. Although people are saying that the number of cases involved is small, at this time there is not telling how many tests were incorrect.

Now it is true that the breathalyzer test is not the only piece of evidence in a drunk driving case, but it can be pivotal. As people we rely on measurements to quantify things for us.  Be it the proper height of a basketball hoop or the speed your car is travelling, we have units of measurement that can specify things, and not make them judgement calls. Many people who have breathalyzer results that are over the legal limit will plead guilty and not fight the charge in court.  But if the machine that took that test is not working properly how can we be sure of the results?  The whole point of having a system like this is to standardize results, so that each basketball hoop is at the same height. Otherwise one team may be taking easy shots all game. It is similarly unfair for an accused individual to have unreliable tests results used against him. 

The president of the Massachusetts Bar Association recently said,
“If you’re going to be convicted on a number, you better be darn sure that number is correct and what led up to getting that number was pristine and clear, and there is nothing wrong with the analysis.” She is absolutely correct.  Having a conviction for driving under the influence has serious repercussions in Massachusetts.  So if you are going to be convicted of it, the evidence better be solid. 

I’ve defended hundreds of cases of OUI/DUI in Massachusetts and will be watching these developments very carefully.  It may be possible to have previous convictions overturned.  If you have a conviction or plead guilty to DUI/OUI in Massachusetts, and it involved a breathalyzer, it may be worth it to talk to a lawyer. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me for a free consultation at (617) 307-5056.

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