The tests that determine drunken driving are often unreliable, and judges are starting to question them, a New York Times investigation finds
By Carmen Reinicke
November 3, 2019
Alcohol breath tests, used by police stations across the US, often produce results that are incorrect, an investigation by the New York Times has found.
Different states use different brands of alcohol breath tests, but The Times found that all such tests could produce inaccurate results if they’re set up incorrectly or maintained poorly. Some states use test devices that aren’t recommended by experts, use “home brewed” chemicals that throw off results, or have disabled certain safeguarding features, further exacerbating issues, the report found.
Those conclusions are striking considering that such tests are widely regarded as though they are always accurate and correct and are often a key piece of evidence in drunken-driving cases — if someone gets a result that is higher than 0.08, the legal limit in most of the country, they’re highly likely to be convicted of a crime.
Issues with the tests have led states and judges to start questioning the devices, according to the report. In Massachusetts and New Jersey, 42,000 convictions are on the line because of breath test results now seen as questionable. Minnesota and Washington have also started questioning the tests.
The inaccurate tests have caused a lot of harm, the report found. People have been wrongly convicted of drunken driving when tests inaccurately show high levels of alcohol in their blood. When this happens, it can be difficult and costly to fight the charges. Being charged with drunken driving can lead to license suspension, which has an impact on a person’s ability to work and pay back fines, court fees, and legal bills.
On the flip side, when the tests are found to be inaccurate, states discard the results, according to the report. This means drivers who have committed serious offenses are sometimes let off the hook and back on the road.