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Breathalyzers in Washington DC DUI Cases

by | Nov 2, 2022

A DC DUI lawyer discusses whether breathalyzers in Washington DC DUI cases are accurate and what factors can contribute to a false positive test.

Problems with Breathalyzer Testing

Breathalyzers in Washington DC DUI cases used to make countless arrests have a long history of problems. There have been significant errors in maintenance and the general unreliability of their results in Washington DC DUI cases going back ten to fifteen years.

Due to these problems, the DC government and law enforcement have attempted to fix the breath testing system. However, DUI defense attorneys must be vigilant and constantly insist on checking their reliability and maintenance in any case when a breath test score is used as evidence.

That means police and other law enforcement officials must rely on other, more subjective, methods of roadside alcohol testing. These include non-standardized sobriety tests — such as the request to count backward or recite a portion of the alphabet — that are designed to make you fail. Even standardized field sobriety tests, approved by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), can be unreliable since they have to be administered in a standardized manner, which is not always possible.

There is a significant margin of error for each, which is why it is important if you have been arrested on DUI charges in Washington D.C., your first call should be to an experienced DUI attorney.

Long History of Breathalyzer Machine Malfunctioning

Problems with the Breathalyzers D.C. officers had been using were reported as early as 2010. The Breathalyzer machines are used to measure the blood alcohol content of people who are being investigated by law enforcement for suspected driving while intoxicated. At the time, the issue was reported on by Paul Wagner of MyFoxDC. He learned that an outsider hired to oversee the Breathalyzer unit of the local police department uncovered more than 10 years of faulty results.

In a memorandum sent to the District’s attorney general, it was reported that officers in the program almost never tested the machines for accuracy. In fact, the machines hadn’t been properly tested since 2000.

The issue surfaced in one DUI case in which a man was convicted primarily on the Breathalyzer reading at the time of his arrest – a reading that, as it was later acknowledged, could not be verified as accurate. The man’s DUI defense attorney was quoted as saying that the implications were huge, going back a number of years and undermining the integrity of the court system.

Ultimately, the machines were pulled out of law enforcement circulation. Officers were ordered to rely instead on urine samples and field sobriety tests. Council members expressed frustration to local media, saying that the machines were the most cost-effective and accurate ways of testing suspected alcohol consumption by motorists.

“Every city does it,” said Councilman Phil Mendelson at the time. “We ought to be doing it. It ought to be up and running.”

Arrests for DUI and DWI have dropped sharply since 2009, with the attorney general’s office declining to take a number of DWI cases to court.

Reliability of a Breathalyzer Test

Breath tests are considered the easiest way to test an individual’s blood alcohol content. A breathalyzer test can be completed by almost any police officer who can certify as a breath testing operator. The breath test results are available immediately, as opposed to urine and blood tests.

However, there are several ways that a Breathalyzer test can produce a false positive or inaccurately high blood alcohol concentration score.

Washington, DC, has two types of breath tests. The first type is a portable breath test that can be offered to a driver suspected of DUI at the location where they are pulled over. Portable breath tests are voluntary; they are not used in court as evidence and can be refused without consequences. However, refusing may be an additional reason for the officer to take the driver to the police station for a breathalyzer test.

Challenging the Breath Test Results

When a driver is pulled over for suspicion of driving under the influence, police officers will ask them to do a number of things before being asked to submit a breath sample for testing. Police officers can use a number of factors to obtain probable cause for a DUI arrest.

After an arrest, suspected DUI offenders are typically taken to the nearest district police station, where they are booked, processed, and submit to a breath test. That test submitted by a Breathalyzer machine would produce a person’s blood alcohol content result that would be admissible in court.

Under most circumstances, the arrested driver can’t refuse a breath test due to the DC Implied Consent Act. Although the Washington government has taken steps to improve the breath testing system, human error is still possible.

Challenging individual breath testing results due to machines’ irregularities can be a part of the defense strategy. That’s why it’s crucial to have a defense lawyer who understands the methods by which breath testing machines are calibrated.

If you are facing DUI charges in D.C., contact Attorney Joseph A. Scrofano by calling 202-765-3175 to discuss your rights or fill out our online contact form.