Bad Breathalyzers Imprisons Innocent

When I was a child, I was greatly moved by a couple of events — one involving something I saw on television and one more directly in my own life. On television, I watched an episode of Doogie Howser, MD in which young Doogie had a beer and then rushed to the hospital to attend to an emergency — only he got pulled over for driving erratically. He explained to the officer that he only had one drink and that he was okay but the officer found this not to be the case.

A few years later, I was visiting family in Canada and we were out on a road trip one evening when our car was hit on the side by a driver that turned out to be drunk. I bruised my elbow a bit as the car hit us not hard enough to do substantial damage, but just hard enough that the car door bumped me inside the car. When we got to the home where we were staying and we were later told that the person that hit us had been somewhat intoxicated, I began to see driving while drunk as a major problem.

There is no doubt that drunk driving is wrong and a scourge that needs to be removed from society — it could even be said that the problem of people not being aware of exactly how sober they are contributes heavily to this. There are problems that arise, however, when there are people out and about being imprisoned for drunk driving when they may not have been drunk:

Motorists in Washington, DC may have been falsely accused of driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) for more than a decade as a result of faulty “Intoxilyzer” breath testing equipment. Whistleblower Ilmar Paegle, a veteran police officer now working as a contract employee for the District Department of Transportation, argued in a memorandum to the city’s attorney general that the breath testing machines have not been properly calibrated since 2000, as first reported by WTTG-TV.

To date, the District has only admitted to bogus breathalyzer results taken between September 2008 and February 4, 2010. Of 1100 cases prosecuted in that period, 300 were convicted based on evidence provided by faulty machines.

To say that this is outside of an acceptable margin of error would be putting it lightly — more than twenty five percent of cases were wrongly prosecuted? This brings many questions to mind, one of which is — what is the appropriate way to make it up to someone who has been wrongfully prosecuted for drunk driving?

Is there a way to make it up? Moreover, we must speculate that if there were three hundred wrongfully prosecuted in just a one and a half year period, hundreds if not thousands more could have been wrongfully prosecuted and convicted between 2000 and September of 2008.

What could even happen if you are wrongfully convicted?

“You too could have been pulled over on the basis of a minor traffic violation and put through a series of difficult and humiliating field sobriety tests,” DC-based defense attorney Jamison Koehler wrote on his law firm’s blog. “After blowing into the breath test machine, you could have spent the night in a jail cell with other people who were drunk, angry, disorderly, mentally ill or whose sweating, panting and retching signaled to you that they going through drug withdrawal. You could have had to shell out thousands of dollars to hire a lawyer and missed work on so many occasions to attend court hearings that your employer warned you might be fired…. On the basis of the faulty breath test results, you too have been convicted of driving while intoxicated even with blood alcohol levels far below the legal limit.”

This is a cruel fate for those law abiding citizens in the Panopticonic gaze of Washington D.C., where the choice to have a drink before driving may land you in prison.

There are some who would argue that one who has had even one drink should not drink, no matter how mighty their bodies are at processing alcohol. The current law seems to almost encourage people to drink a prescribed amount but not too much — or else there would be no need for a numeric limit and the law would just be that any amount of alcohol is too much. Until the law changes — and I don’t think that it will any time soon — we must be vigilant in maintaining the equipment that makes the difference between someone who is on the right side of the law and one who is breaking it.

5 comments

  • You raise some tough questions, Gordon. I don’t drink at all, and I don’t understand how people who have one drink can get behind the wheel and drive — but then how are they supposed to go to a bar or out to dinner and have a drink and get some safely? Not everyone who has a glass of wine with dinner is able to have a designated driver available.

    Some cities offer free cab service home on “busy drinking nights” — but it isn’t always a regular thing, but it should be.

    Many municipalities know that when the bars close after a Saturday night football game, over 60% of the people they pull over will be legally intoxicated. That’s a major problem that appears to have no safe solution.

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    • I would argue that if you don’t have a designated driver and can’t get a cab, don’t drink. Nobody would say “I can’t find a person to spot me while bench pressing, guess I will just risk this weight crushing me to death!” — and here, the person is putting the lives of others in danger as well as their own.

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      • I agree, Gordon, but spotters don’t have lobby money behind them and they don’t have an entire multi-billion dollar food an liquor industry hoping and praying you’ll have a drink with dinner tonight. We need a way to let people drink but not drive.

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        • PSAs are one way to let people know that they can drink as long as they don’t drive — and to always have a designated driver. On television shows, they will frequently show people volunteering to be the designated driver.

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