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Trend: Massachusetts prosecutors stop using breathalyzer results in court

A police officer holds a breath test machine in his hand ready at a traffic stop with his patrol car in the background.*the officer was blurred on purpose to place focus on the mouth piece.

Massachusetts district attorneys just joined a growing movement to stop using breathalyzer results in driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases.

DWI defense attorneys have known for a long time about the many ways breathalyzers can produce inaccurate results. Now, prosecutors are finding it harder to defend the use of the faulty equipment.

Nearly all of Massachusetts' district attorneys now say that they no longer use breathalyzer results when building a DWI case or only use the data in rare instances.

Michigan's prosecutors have also declined to use the equipment at trial. The police there stopped using them, too. Now Michigan officers take suspected drunk drivers to local hospitals for drawn-blood alcohol analysis.

New Jersey is in a similar situation to Massachusetts. The state discovered poorly maintained breathalyzers led to thousands of possibly inaccurate results.

Florida and Pennsylvania have also put the roadside breath tests under more scrutiny.

Breathalyzer failures

In Massachusetts, the decision to ditch the breath tests may have been influenced by the recent discovery that, from June 2011 to about April 2019, many breathalyzer machines were not properly calibrated.

It has now also come to light that some of the people administering the breathalyzer tests were not properly certified to do so.

In late spring, Massachusetts' local prosecutors notified their communities of about 27,000 DWI convictions involving breathalyzer results that may be overturned. People interested in getting a second shot at justice must file for an appeal.

While district attorneys are declining to use the equipment, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker's administration and state police are standing by them. State officials say very few uncertified officers administered the tests during the time in question. A trusted calibration schedule would put the alcohol-detection tool back in proper use, they say.

For those who know better, these are hardly reassurances of the test's accuracy. Even before their glaring failures were revealed, savvy defense lawyers were aware of the many ways breath tests can be wrong.

Texas' take on the breathalyzer

In Texas, portable breathalyzers are still used by police. The results of these roadside tests are not admissible in court for criminal prosecutions or in administrative license revocations, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Some prosecutors try to get around the ban by asking the administering officer to testify in court that they gave the suspect a breathalyzer test and that, soon after, the person was arrested.

While roadside breath tests are not allowed at trial, breath tests and blood-drawn BAC results conducted at a police station can be presented to a jury.

Texas police use the roadside breath tests, instead, to determine probable cause, which can justify further investigation of a suspect. Before administering the tests, Texas police are required to be in the suspect's presence for at least 15 minutes. This way an officer can be sure that nothing has come up from or gone into the suspect that would influence results.

Breathalyzers are often unreliable

Breathalyzer results have never been a foolproof way to determine whether someone is driving drunk.  Outside factors easily impact results, like:

  • Residual mouth alcohol
  • User error
  • Stomach problems
  • Burping
  • Some medical conditions
  • Chemical exposure
  • Poor equipment maintenance and cleanliness

Under perfect conditions, breathalyzers may deliver trustworthy results. However, outside of a university lab, these conditions rarely exist.

Beating the breath test

For decades, prosecutors and police convinced juries that you "can't beat a breathalyzer," but more and more evidence is exposing this lie.

Many cops and DAs still want you to believe that breathalyzer results are bulletproof when, in fact, they're far from it.

Were you arrested or charged with DWI in Conroe or the greater Houston area? Call DWI defense lawyer Amanda Webb for a free case evaluation.

We can help you weigh your options and come up with a strategy to secure justice for you.