Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Orders Hearing on Reliability of Breathalyzer Machine

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled that defendants charged with operating under the influence of alcohol are entitled to a hearing to determine whether the Breathalyzer machine is reliable.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Camblin

The lead defendant was charged with operating under the influence following his arrest by a state trooper in April of 2008.  The trooper saw the defendant’s car stopped in the breakdown lane on Route 495.  The defendant was standing outside of his car and urinating.  The trooper approached the defendant and smelled an odor of alcohol.  The defendant admitted to drinking several beers at a bar before driving and his speech was slurred.  After failing a series of field sobriety tests, the defendant was arrested.  He submitted to Breathalyzer analysis and blew a 0.16 (double the legal limit of 0.08).

Prior to trial, the defendant filed a motion to exclude his Breathalyzer reading, arguing that the machine’s model (the Alcotest 7110 MK III-C, which is manufactured by Draeger Safety Diagnostics, Inc.) is unreliable.  Dozens of other defendants have made the same argument and all of their cases were consolidated for hearing before a district court judge.

The manufacturer had previously provided the source code for the machine and the defendant had retained experts to analyze the code.  The defense experts concluded that the source code contained thousands of errors, some of which could result in a false Breathalyzer reading.  These experts further alleged that the results may be unreliable because the machine does not test exclusively for ethanol and relies on an outdated understanding of respiratory physiology.  The Commonwealth filed affidavits from its own experts disputing the defense arguments.

The district court judge who heard the defendants’ consolidated motion rejected their argument without a hearing, reasoning that the Breathalyzer results are admissible by statute and therefore not subject to a hearing on their scientific reliability.  Further, the judge acknowledged and accepted a decision of the New Jersey Supreme Court that concluded the purported source code errors did not affect the reliability of the machine’s readings.

On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the defendants are entitled to a hearing to present their claims that the Alcotest machine is not scientifically reliable.  The Court accepted the defendants’ argument that even if Breathalyzer results are admissible by statute, the defendants still have the right to challenge the scientific reliability of the machine itself.  The Court pointed out that the Alcotest is the first machine that relies on “dual-sensoric” technology to analyze a defendant’s breath sample, and no Massachusetts appellate court has considered the reliability of this new machine’s source code.

The SJC sent the case back to the district court and ordered the judge to hold a hearing to determine whether the defendants’ arguments have merit.  After the district court judge makes his findings, they will almost certainly be reviewed by either the Appeals Court or the Supreme Judicial Court.

This is an incredibly important case for people charged with OUI.  Cases involving a Breathalyzer reading are obviously much stronger than cases that do not have Breathalyzer evidence.  Defense attorneys have long been suspicious of the reliability of Breathalyzer readings and having the ability to challenge the new machine is a very positive development.