Broken Breathalyzers: Philly needs a DUI do-over

Traffic stops for drunk driving were not the problem from 2009 to 2010. The Breathalyzers back at the station were.

What Philadelphia police thought was a relatively minor mistake turned into a major-league boo boo as officials announced yesterday that more than 1,100 DUI prosecutions could be in jeopardy as a result of faulty Breathalyzer tests.

Authorities said four of the department’s eight Breathalyzer machines were incorrectly calibrated between September 2009 and November 2010 due to human error. The district attorney’s office must notify attorneys for another 700 defendants on top of the 400-plus cases they discovered problems last week.

The news comes the same day that a poll showed that most Philadelphians trust police.

“We screwed up, folks,” Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said during a morning press conference. “We screwed up, plain and simple, and now we are paying for it. But we’ve got to get the information out there and make it right.”

Any defendants who were found guilty or have pleaded can request a retrial, said District Attorney Seth Williams. He claims the Breathalyzer is only one piece of evidence.

But defense attorney Joe Kelly, who initially discovered the problem, said it could impact hundreds of cases, adding that Breathalyzers are often the prime piece of evidence to prove a driver’s drunk or not.

“The machines are so important because when they changed the law in [2003] you have enhanced penalties based on the [blood alcohol level] reading,” Kelly noted. “We’ve been arguing this for a couple years about the calibrations.”

Ramsey said the machines will not be used until a state police expert recalibrates them and retrains certain officers.

Lack of oversight

Veteran DUI attorney Joe Kelly said he always asks for calibrations on the machines and last month was not the first time he discovered a mistake, although that instance prompted authorities to check all of their machines, causing them to find the mistakes.

In the most recent case, Kelly said, the machine was reading .141 on a sample that was .150. Lt. Ray Evers said the machines are calibrated once a year and tested every eight hours. One officer is responsible for the calibrations, but Evers could not say whether that officer faces any discipline, although Ramsey called the error “unacceptable.”


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