Articles Posted in Breath Testing

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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