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Investigative journalism piece exposes alcohol breath test issues

It has been widely known for decades that people are all too often convicted of drunk driving based on questionable breath test results. Criminal defense attorneys routinely attempt to investigate whether breath testing equipment used to charge their clients was correctly programmed, maintained, calibrated and used.

But a November 2019 New York Times exposé that looks extensively at this problem uncovered systemic issues with many of the machines themselves and with the way some state and local officials have used them to convict people stopped for suspected drunk driving.

For example, the piece explains how in the previous year, over 30,000 breath test results were found unreliable in courts of two states alone – Massachusetts and New Jersey. Some of the problems causing unreliability of results – even up to 40% too high – include quality of equipment, actions of government employees or other issues:

  • Improper calibration
  • Inadequate training on proper maintenance or calibration
  • Shoddy maintenance standards or lack of protocols
  • Out-of-date chemicals
  • Homemade chemicals
  • Machine exposure to rodents
  • Software or programming errors
  • Disabling of internal safeguards
  • Inconsistent results
  • Calculation errors
  • Altered police or lab records regarding machine maintenance or calibration

One person who previously ran a breath test manufacturer admitted disturbingly that they “were never meant to be used that way.” Yet, states require drivers to take them and impose penalties like license loss for refusal.

About two dozen companies offer breath test models for sale in the U.S., so getting a firm hold on the breadth of problems more challenging as they may vary from model to model and company to company.

It is crucially important that anyone in Texas facing drunk driving charges seek the advice and representation as early as possible of an experienced criminal defense lawyer, who can begin to build an aggressive defense. This includes a thorough investigation of the surrounding circumstances, including whether a breath test was administered and whether there were issues with improper administration, maintenance, calibration, manufacturing or programming.

At The Law Office of Anthony B. Cantrell with locations in San Antonio and New Braunfels, Texas, attorney Cantrell represents those accused of drunk driving in south Texas.

(The New York Times provides links here to many documents it uncovered in its investigation.)