Massachusetts Court Says Breathaylzers Are A-OK Less Than Three Months After Declaring Them Hot Garbage
from the good-enough-for-the-drukqs dept
Breathalyzers are like drug dogs and field tests: they are considered infallible right up until they’re challenged in court. Once challenged, the evidence seems to indicate all of the above are basically coin tosses the government always claims to win. Good enough for a search or an arrest when only examined by an interested outsider who’s been subjected to warrantless searches and possibly bogus criminal charges. But when the evidentiary standard is a little more rigorous than roadside stops, probable cause assertions seem to start falling apart.
Drug dogs are only as good as their handlers. They perform probable cause tricks in exchange for praise and treats. Field drug tests turn bird poop and donut crumbs into probable cause with a little roadside swirling of $2-worth of chemicals. And breathalyzers turn regular driving into impaired driving with devices that see little in the way of calibration or routine maintenance.
Courts have seldom felt compelled to argue against law enforcement expertise and training, even when said expertise/training relies on devices never calibrated or maintained, even when said devices are capable of depriving people of their freedom.
Once every so often courts take notice of the weak assertions of probable cause — ones almost entirely supported by cop tools that remain untested and unproven. Late last year, a state judge issued an order forbidding the use of breathalyzer results as evidence in impaired driving prosecutions. District court judge Robert Brennan said he had numerous concerns about the accuracy of the tests, and the oversight of testing, and the testing of test equipment by the Massachusetts Office of Alcohol Testing.
“Breathalyzer results undeniably are among the most incriminating and powerful pieces of evidence in prosecutions involving either alcohol impairment or “per se” blood alcohol percentage as an element. Their improper inclusion in criminal cases not only unfairly impacts individual defendants, but also undermines public confidence in the criminal justice system.”
The pause on using breathalyzer tests as evidence is only the most recent development in a year’s long challenge of their accuracy. In 2017, ruling on the reliability of tests taken between 2012 and 2014, Brennan found that while the tests were accurate, the way the state maintained them was not.
A court finally found a reason to push back against assertions of training and expertise, as well as assertions that cop tech should be considered nigh invulnerable. But the pushback is over. The same court is apparently now satisfied that the tech it questioned last November is good enough to make determinations that can deprive people of their property and freedom.
Breathalyzers are back in business in the Bay State after a judge dropped the suspension on breath tests, which cops use to bust and prosecute drunk drivers.
Salem Judge Robert Brennan, who in November ordered the statewide exclusion of breath test results, has tossed out the police Breathalyzer pause.
The Draeger Alcotest 9510 breath tests have come under fire for several years, as a Springfield OUI attorney represents defendants in statewide Breathalyzer litigation. Lead defense attorney Joseph Bernard has been raising concerns about the software problems impacting the scientific reliability of the breath test.
But the Salem judge in the ruling vacating the Breathalyzer suspension said the Draeger Alcotest 9510 “produces scientifically reliable breath test results.”
Judge Brennan isn’t willing to let the possibly subpar be the enemy of the verifiable good. If you went long on breathalyzers late last year, it’s time to cash out. According to Judge Brennan, whatever’s determined to be good enough is, well, good enough to deprive people of their liberties. Brennan’s decision notes there’s no such thing as “perfect source code” or “flawless machines.” Therefore, state residents should just resign themselves to the fact their freedom is reliant on the Massachusetts’ OKest Breathalyzers.
“This Court remains satisfied that the public can have full confidence in the results produced by the Alcotest 9510…”
But can they though? Who knows? Certainly not this court. Certification information has been offered but prior to the November 2021 decision, state prosecutors were voluntarily excluding breathalyzer evidence. That’s not exactly a vote of confidence. And this vote against breathalyzers was coming from entities judged almost solely on their prosecutorial wins, necessitating the need to achieve as many easy wins as possible.
Weirdly, the judge says the tests are OK but their oversight isn’t. Despite the fact that both facets need to be on the same level to avoid abuse and unjustified arrests, the judge is allowing roadside testing to move forward while criticizing the Office of Alcohol Testing for its “lack of candor and transparency” when dealing with the court and criminal defendants.
In the end, the system prevails. Massachusetts cops can continue to use questionable tech to effect arrests and engage in warrantless searches and detentions. As for its oversight, it’s only being threatened with the possibility of further action from this court — the same court that ended breathalyzer testing in November (citing concerns about equipment and accuracy) only to reverse course three months later.
One imagines the demands placed on the Office of Alcohol Testing will be just as temporary as this court’s momentary pause on the use of unproven tech. The desire to be in the police business once again outweighs the public’s concern about being on the wrong end of baseless prosecutions. The onus is back on presumably innocent defendants to prove the government isn’t using faulty tech to lock them up.