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2013 Was a Tumultuous Year for Court Decisions in DUI Cases Regarding the Accuracy of Breathalyzer Results

A late 2012 court ruling questioned the calibration methods used by Pennsylvania law enforcement for breathalyzer devices, and seemed to cast doubt on DUI cases all over the state. Comm. v. Schildt, No. 2191 CR 2010, opinion (Pa. Ct. Comm. Pleas, Dauphin Co., Dec. 31, 2012). Unfortunately, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania reversed the decision on procedural grounds in a nonprecedential opinion in September 2013. The trial court’s analysis still offers an important glimpse of something DUI lawyers have known for a long time: prosecutors rely on technology that requires, but does not always receive, regular maintenance and calibration in order to provide accurate information.

The defendant was reportedly involved in a single-car accident shortly after 2:00 a.m. on January 16, 2010. A state trooper arrested him after he admitted to having multiple alcoholic drinks. At the police station, a breath test was administered after a twenty-minute observation period, but within two hours of the time he was driving. The device used had last been calibrated and tested on January 9, according to police. Two breath tests yielded results of 0.208% and 0.214% breath alcohol content.

Prosecutors charged the defendant with driving under the influence at the highest rate of alcohol, 0.16% or higher. 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3802(c). The defendant filed a motion to quash the charges, arguing that the breath testing could not scientifically establish blood alcohol content above 0.15%, and that therefore prosecutors could not prove an essential element of their case.

The regulations governing breath testing device calibration, 67 Pa. Code §§ 77.24, 77.25, and 77.26, only mandate calibration testing at 0.05%, 0.10%, and 0.15%. An expert presented by the defense testified that any breathalyzer device calibrated according to this standard could not give a reliable result over 0.15%. In a thirty-page decision issued on December 31, 2012, the Court of Common Pleas judge agreed and granted the motion to quash.

The Superior Court reversed the trial court’s order and remanded the case, citing procedural reasons and identifying the decision as non-precedential. Comm. v. Schildt, No. 196 MDA 2013, mem. op. (Pa. Super. Ct., Sep. 5, 2013). It held that the defendant’s motion to quash amounted to a pre-trial petition for habeas corpus relief, and that the trial court abused its discretion by granting it.

The court did not address the merits of the defendant’s arguments in support of the motion to quash, holding that questions regarding the accuracy of the breath test could be brought up at trial. The Commonwealth Court rejected an argument in a different case that breathalyzer tests had been ruled by Schildt to be unreliable above 0.15%, noting that the case was non-precedential. Belice v. Comm., No. 596 C.D. 2013, mem. op. (Pa. Commw. Ct., Dec. 20, 2013).

A DUI arrest in Pennsylvania can seriously affect your life, whether or not you are ever convicted of an offense. If you have been arrested or charged with DUI, you need the help of a qualified and skilled DUI lawyer. Zachary B. Cooper, Attorney at Law, P.C. has dedicated 100% of his practice to DUI defense. We can can advise you of your rights and plan the best possible defense for you. We are available to help you 24/7. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we can help you, please contact us online or at (215) 542-0800.

Web Resources:

Opinion (PDF file), Commonwealth v. Schildt, No. 2191 CR 2010, Court of Common Pleas, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, December 31, 2012

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