Articles Posted in Breath Testing

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An appeal in the Pennsylvania Superior Court claimed that a field sobriety test conducted on a snow-covered road, along with breath testing conducted without the 20-minute observation period required by Pennsylvania law, were insufficient to support a conviction for driving under the influence (DUI). The defendant/appellant in Commonwealth v. Favinger challenged the sufficiency of the evidence against him and the legality of the traffic stop that led to his arrest. The Superior Court ultimately affirmed the verdict and sentence, but its opinion offers a useful overview of the different ways that prosecutors may establish that a defendant was impaired by alcohol in a DUI case.

A state trooper pulled the defendant over at about 3:20 a.m. on January 29, 2011. The trooper testified that the defendant continued to travel about half a mile after the trooper activated his emergency lights, finally stopping in a driveway. He claimed that he detected the odor of alcohol, and that the defendant’s eyes were “bloodshot and glassy.” The defendant agreed to field sobriety testing, which the trooper claimed he failed. Breath testing conducted after the defendant’s arrest showed blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.128 percent. The defendant was later convicted of DUI–general impairment and DUI–high rate of alcohol.

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The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania recently considered the appeal of a license suspension for refusal to submit to chemical testing. The defendant in Commonwealth v. Campbell denied that she refused testing, and the record shows that she consented to breath testing and submitted several samples. Rather, she argued that the police did not give her enough opportunity to comply with the testing requirement. The court reviewed the elements that the state must prove in order to prove refusal. It affirmed the trial court’s order, meaning that a driver who agrees to submit to chemical testing could still be charged with refusal.

Police arrested the defendant shortly before midnight on February 12, 2012. The arresting officer administered a portable breath test, which reportedly showed blood alcohol content (BAC) of .18 percent. He concluded that the defendant had been driving under the influence of alcohol, placed her under arrest, and took her to a sheriff’s office with a chemical testing facility.

At the sheriff’s office, a deputy sheriff reportedly read the Implied Consent Law warnings to the defendant “several times,” and the defendant stated that she understood the warnings and agreed to submit to chemical testing. The deputy testified in court that he used a “BAC Data Master” for breath testing. The deputy testified that the defendant failed to perform the test properly, despite his instructions. She allegedly only breathed into the mouthpiece for four to five seconds, which was not enough time to collect a sample. The deputy allowed her to try again, but claimed that the second sample was also insufficient. His supervisor prevented him from giving her a third try. Continue reading

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The state can charge a person with DUI even without direct evidence of intoxication, as demonstrated by the case of a Texas man who was arrested and charged with DUI despite negative breath and blood tests. Prosecutors eventually dismissed all of the charges against him, but police continue to defend the decision to arrest and charge him, arguing that he could have been impaired by a substance that did not show up on the blood test. Pennsylvania law states that blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher constitutes “impairment,” but it also prohibits driving while under the influence of any amount of alcohol or a controlled substance that makes safe driving impossible. Proving impairment is generally easiest for the state with BAC evidence, but it is not necessarily required.

The arrest occurred on January 13, 2013 in Austin, Texas, when police pulled the man over for allegedly running a stop sign. He was taken into custody and given a breath test, which showed BAC of 0.00 percent. He admitted to having one drink earlier, but the test results suggest that no significant amount of alcohol was present in his bloodstream. He agreed to submit to a blood test, which police say screens for seven different drugs, including alcohol. The results were not available for several months, but also showed no measurable amount of any of the seven drugs.

The man was nevertheless charged with DUI, known in Texas as DWI. Police claimed that he failed a field sobriety test at the time of his arrest, with official reports stating that the arresting officer observed him swaying and needing to use an arm to support himself while standing on one leg. This behavior could have multiple other possible explanations besides intoxication, such as a condition affecting one’s equilibrium or simple fatigue, but prosecutors apparently felt this was enough to support a DUI case. More than a year after the arrest, they finally dismissed all charges. Continue reading

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A bill currently pending in the Pennsylvania Legislature, SB 1036, would significantly expand the use of ignition interlock devices in DUI cases. This is a device that tests breath alcohol content (BAC) and prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver’s BAC is above a certain level. Currently, state law only requires the device for individuals with more than one DUI conviction. The bill, if enacted, could actually enable people to begin driving again sooner after a DUI-related license suspension than before. At the same time, however, the bill has the support of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, an organization which rarely supports legislation that makes things easier for DUI defendants.

State law defines an “ignition interlock system” as one that requires a driver to give a breath sample before starting the vehicle, and which prevents operation of the vehicle if the breath sample shows BAC of 0.025% or higher. The device is required for drivers with two convictions for DUI within a ten-year period, drivers whose license has been suspended for refusal to submit to chemical testing while under arrest, or who violated a previous order to use an ignition interlock system. Drivers must have the device professionally installed, and they are responsible for paying a monthly service fee. Once the state has issued a restricted license requiring ignition interlock, the driver must use the device for at least one year before obtaining an unrestricted license. Drivers with only one DUI conviction are not required to use an ignition interlock device at the end of their license suspension.

The bill would add a new section to the chapter on licensing of drivers to create an “ignition interlock limited license.” Under current law, a first conviction for DUI can result in license suspension of twelve to eighteen months. A person’s license can also be suspended for refusing to submit to chemical testing. Instead of an automatic license suspension, the proposed new law would give drivers the option of continuing to drive with the use of an ignition interlock device. The amount of time an individual has this type of license would be credited to any other period of time they would be required to have an ignition interlock system under current law for the same alleged offense. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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Driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, commonly known as “driving under the influence” or just “DUI,” is a serious offense under Pennsylvania law. Penalties can range from a loss of driving privileges to a lengthy prison sentence, depending on the circumstances. The law in Pennsylvania clearly defines the obligations of police and prosecutors in any case of alleged DUI, and it is critically important for anyone accused of DUI to know their rights. Among the many elements of the offense of DUI that the state must prove, it must provide proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was impaired by alcohol or illegal drugs.

What is “Impairment”?

Pennsylvania law defines “impairment” very broadly as a state in which a driver is “incapable of safely driving, operating or being in actual physical control of the movement of the vehicle.” Police and prosecutors can gather evidence of impairment by testing a person’s blood or breath, or by observing a person’s behavior and testifying about it in court.

Blood alcohol content (BAC), the percentage of alcohol in a person’s bloodstream at a particular time, is considered by the legal system to be a reliable means of determining impairment. Pennsylvania law presumes that a person is impaired if their BAC is 0.08 percent or higher within two hours of driving. For anyone under the age of 21, or anyone driving a school bus, that amount is 0.02 percent. Commercial vehicle drivers are presumed to be impaired with a BAC of 0.04 percent. Continue reading