Breath Tests Take a Hit

The California Supreme Court has decided to make drunk driving convictions even harder to get than they are now:

Alcohol levels in a breath sample are converted mathematically to derive a blood-alcohol percentage….The standard formula for converting breath results to blood-alcohol levels is not accurate for everyone, however, and can vary depending on an individual’s medical condition, gender, temperature, the atmospheric pressure and the precision of the measuring device, the court said.

“The question is whether a defendant who has a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08% or more measured by breath is entitled to rebut that presumption that he was under the influence” in certain cases, Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote. The court’s answer was yes.

….San Bernardino County Deputy Dist. Atty. Mark A. Vos, who prosecuted the case before the court, said the ruling was “going to make DUI trials a little more difficult to put on” because more technical evidence will be permitted. The numbers are going to be flying back and forth in DUI trials, so prosecutors are going to have to adapt,” Vos said.

I guess things have changed.  This kind of evidence was presented ten or fifteen years ago in the DUI case I sat on, but I suppose it must have been outlawed at some point since then.  This court ruling (PDF) makes it admissible yet again.

(Ah, I see: this AP story says the Supreme Court barred drivers from attacking the variability of breath tests in a 1994 case.  I think my case was a year or two before that.)

As a legal matter, this might be the right ruling.  I don’t know — but the decision was unanimous, which suggests there was little controversy about it.  As a practical matter, though, it’s a pain in the ass.  In the trial I sat on, the defense attorney played up this stuff for all it was worth, essentially trying to convince the jury that breathalyzer tests were so variable as to be completely useless.  And it almost worked.  Most of the jury was initially willing to let our guy walk because they were so confused by all the testimony that they figured there just had to be reasonable doubt.  It basically turned the case into a circus — and one that, needless to say, can only be played by wealthy defendents who can afford fancy lawyers.

I was disgusted by the whole thing.  If there’s a very specific reason to think a particular breath test is wrong — equipment malfunction, relevant medical condition, etc. — then I wouldn’t mind this kind of testimony.  But just as a general catchall to allow defense attorneys to throw mud on the wall and confuse people?  No thanks.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.