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Seattle Judges Reinstate Breath Tests in County DUI Prosecutions

By Jim Greene

on September 24, 2010

Breath tests can once again be used as evidence in the prosecution of drunken driving cases in the county that includes Seattle, Wash., according to a ruling by a panel of three King County District Court judges. In reversing a two-year ban on the use of the tests in court, the panel imposed additional requirements for processing the tests.

In 2008, the same panel suppressed the use of breath tests in county courts, saying the Washington State Toxicology Laboratory had developed a “culture of compromise.” An audit exposed at least 150 errors at the facility, which processes the breath tests used to determine blood alcohol concentration (BAC) in those suspected of driving under the influence (DUI).

Lab Audit Began after Suspicion of Falsified Documents

One of the first signs of trouble at the state lab was the disclosure that a manager was suspected of signing sworn statements that she had personally tested and approved breath testing devices that were actually tested by others in the lab.

In their ruling this week, the judges said the lab’s ability to eliminate errors has been improved by changes in management and protocol, and expressed their confidence in the accuracy of current testing.

A significant additional requirement imposed by the judges is an uncertainty calculation for the results of each test, to be included in reports used in court cases. The calculation takes into account errors by the testing device and by its operator, as well as the effects of physiological variables, such as the subject’s breathing patterns and body temperature.

Breath Tests Use Air Sample to Approximate Alcohol in Blood

Breath tests are the subject of careful scrutiny, since they don’t actually test blood directly, but approximate BAC based on sampling air from the lungs. Law enforcement agencies prefer breath tests because they provide measurements at the time of the alleged infraction. If a subject does not take a breath test, the time delay before a blood test may allow the BAC to change enough to hamper the prosecution of the case.

If you’ve been arrested for driving under the influence, contact an experienced DUI attorney. Mistakes are made in DUI arrests, in the field and in the lab. Your attorney will fight for your constitutional right to challenge the process and guarantee that every step was carried out fairly and accurately. If you are convicted, your attorney will fight just as hard to see that your punishment is just.

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