Friday, November 6, 2009

How to beat a breath test

Want to trick that breath machine into a false reading? Not that difficult: just vary your breathing pattern.

As I’ve indicated in earlier posts, these breath machines which determine guilt or innocence in DUI cases are not exactly the reliable devices that law enforcement would have us believe.Yet another example of that unreliability is the fact that the results will vary depending upon the breathing pattern of the person being tested.

This has been confirmed in a number of scientific studies. In one, for example, a group of men drank moderate doses of alcohol and their blood-alcohol levels were then measured by gas chromatographic analysis of their breath. The breathing techniques were then varied.The results indicated that holding your breath for 30 seconds before exhaling increased the blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) by 15.7%. Hyperventilating for 20 seconds immediately before the analyses of breath, on the other hand, decreased the blood-alcohol level by 10.6%. Keeping the mouth closed for five minutes and using shallow nasal breathing resulted in increasing the BAC by 7.3%, and testing after a slow, 20-second exhalation increased levels by 2%. "How Breathing Techniques Can Influence the Results of Breath-Alcohol Analyses", 22(4) Medical Science and the Law 275.For another study with similar findings, see "Accurate Measurement of Blood Alcohol Concentration with Isothermal Breathing", 51(1) Journal of Studies on Alcohol 6.

Dr. Michael Hlastala, Professor of Physiology, Biophysics and Medicine at the University of Washington has gone farther and concluded:

"By far, the most overlooked error in breath testing for alcohol is the pattern of breathing….The concentration of alcohol changes considerably during the breath…The first part of the breath, after discarding the dead space, has an alcohol concentration much lower than the equivalent BAC. Whereas, the last part of the breath has an alcohol concentration that is much higher than the equivalent BAC. The last part of the breath can be over 50% above the alcohol level….Thus, a breath tester reading of 0.14% taken from the last part of the breath may indicate that the blood level is only 0.09%." 9(6) The Champion 16 (1985).

Many police officers know this. They also know that if the machine contradicts their judgement that the person they arrested is intoxicated, they won’t look good. So when they tell the arrestee to blow into the machine’s mouthpiece, they’ll yell at him, "Keep breathing! Breathe harder! Harder!" As Professor Hlastala has found, this ensures that the breath captured by the machine will be from the bottom of the lungs, near the alveolar sacs, which will be richest in alcohol. With the higher alcohol concentration, the machine will give a higher — but inaccurate — reading.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Are we losing our rights?

Posted by Lawrence Taylor on November 4th, 2009 at

So you got stopped last night and arrested for drunk driving. And right after the Breathalyzer showed a blood-alcohol reading of .12%, the officer confiscated your driver’s license and gave you a a piece of paper that said it was immediately suspended.

What happened?, you ask. Can they do that? I thought I was presumed to be innocent, and the state has to prove my guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before they can punish me. And I remember something about "due process": Can they suspend my license for DUI before giving me a chance to defend myself?

Good questions.

The Department of Motor Vehicles (or whatever they call it in your state) is required by law to immediately suspend the driver’s license of anyone arrested for (not convicted of) DUI who (1) has a .08% breath reading, or (2) takes a blood or urine test (which will be analyzed later), or (3) refuses to take any test. This means immediately: the license is grabbed and the DUI suspension is legally effective the moment the officer signs the notice and hands it to you.

Viewed another way, the officer in a DUI case is constable, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. You have absolutely no rights. In fact, if you took a blood or urine test, they don’t even wait for the results (which will come back from the lab days later): they not only presume you are guilty, they also presume that the evidence will eventually show it!

So, again: How can they do that in America?

Let’s go back a few years….At first MADD and various state legislatures decided to find a way to get drunk drivers off the highways RIGHT NOW — and not be diverted by any technicalities like, well, the Constitution. So they enacted so-called "APS" laws (the phrase stands for "administrative per se", referring to the "per se" crime of .08%, as opposed to the crime of driving under the influence of alcohol). They justified this by saying that a license was a "privilege", not a "right" — and since the license holder had no rights, the state could do what it wanted.

Well, the U.S. Supreme Court blew that justification out of the water. In Bell v Burson (402 U.S. 535) the Court acknowledged that the right to drive is a privilege. However, once the state gives someone a license, that person then has a property right in it — and that right cannot be taken away without giving him due process. And due process means a fair procedure by which he can contest the confiscation of his property.

The reaction to this has generally been to continue to suspend licenses on the spot, but to then give the driver a short-term temporary operating permit during which he can request an administrative hearing. (In a few states, the process is handed over to the courts.)

MADD has been successful in getting the Feds involved; a highway appropriations bill was passed which pretty much coerced states into adopting APS suspensions — or else no highway funds. Do these APS hearings in DUI cases provide due process? In other words, how fair are they?

Let’s take California’s APS hearings. They are conducted by a "hearing officer". Is this an impartial judge? Well, he’s hardly impartial: He’s an employee of the DMV — the very agency that is trying to suspend the license (kind of like a judge being paid by the prosecutor). And he isn’t a judge. Actually, he isn’t even a lawyer; he’s only required to be a high school graduate.

So who is the prosecutor? He’s, well, the same guy.

That’s right: this DMV employee with no legal education is both judge and prosecutor. Put another way, this government beaurocrat, without ever having read the Evidence Code, can object to the driver’s evidence — and then sustain his own objection! Not too surprisingly, the DMV wins about 95% of these DUI hearings.

That’s called "due process" in a drunk driving case.