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Breath testing is not reliable

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Image from National Institute of Standards & Technology.

DWI breath testing debacles are not isolated to specific geographical pockets, even though Washington, D.C.’s long-running debacle may be the most infamous. DWI breath testing is unreliable due mainly to machine error, human error, unreliability of alcohol simulator solutions and dry gas standards, and maintenance issues with the machines.

As if the D.C. debacle fever had blown northward geographically and personnel-wise, current Philadelphia police chief/former D.C. police chief Charles Ramsey two days ago confirmed Philadelphia’s breath testing debacle, emphasizing: "We screwed up, folks… We screwed up, plain and simple. And now we’re paying for it." NBC Philadelphia’s website confirms that "[l]aw enforcement officials in Philadelphia say more than a thousand drunk-driving cases could be affected by faulty breathalyzer tests because some of the department’s machines were improperly calibrated." The article continues: "Ramsey says the faulty calibration was due to ‘human error.’"

With breath testing so unreliable, it is time to make breath testing inadmissible at drunk driving trials. In the meantime, it is time for judges, prosecutors and police to stop viewing breath testing results as gospel; nothing could be further from the truth.