Use of breathalyzer under review among Pennsylvania law enforcement agencies
Many law enforcement agencies in western Pennsylvania are reviewing the use of breathalyzer tests during DUI stops after a ruling in the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas raised concerns about the tests' reliability.
On Dec. 31, Judge Lawrence F. Clark Jr. threw out a DUI charge after the defendant proved that there is no evidentiary proof that the breathalyzer machines are accurate past 0.15 percent blood-alcohol content. The Dauphin County District Attorney filed an appeal to that ruling to the state Superior Court.
Following the ruling, the Pennsylvania State Police have temporarily suspended the use of breathalyzer machines in favor of blood testing starting last month and local police departments are now deciding if they should follow suit.
The Dauphin County ruling showed that the breathalyzer tests using the IntoxilyzerEN 5000, which is used in many departments throughout the state, only are tested for accuracy at the 0.05, 0.1 and the 0.15 blood-alcohol content level. Attorneys therefore could not prove that the blood-alcohol content above 0.15, which is the highest level of DUI impairment with the most serious fines and penalties, was accurate.
“We know experimentally that at 0.16, at 0.2 its fine,” said Dr. Karl Williams, Allegheny County medical examiner. “At 0.15 that line doesn't fall apart and go back to zero or go up to 100, but that's what was argued scientifically.”
In Allegheny County, law enforcement agencies are looking at their procedures in light of the Dauphin County ruling.
Last week, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala issued a memo to the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police outlining new procedures to use blood testing in some situations, such as when a breath test does not fall within the 0.05 to 0.15 range, until the breathalyzer machines throughout the county can be recalibrated to higher levels.
“I've been in meetings about implications about the ruling, and it's very much in flux,” Williams said. “We're adapting the new procedures in the lab to this ruling.”
The medical examiner's office certifies 28 breathalyzer locations throughout the county. Each machine is tested for accuracy every 30 days, and once per year the machines are calibrated at three levels of blood-alcohol content, 0.05, 0.1 and 0.15.
Starting this month, each machine will be calibrated up to 0.3 blood-alcohol content level to comply with the concerns raised through the Dauphin County ruling.
In his memo, Zappala wrote the recalibration should be complete by March. Until then, police departments throughout Allegheny County will take extra measures to ensure an accurate and reliable test.
Cranberry Township Police Sgt. Chuck Mascellino has been with the department for 17 years and said the department discontinued use of its breathalyzer machine not long after he started.
“Most everybody in Butler County uses blood,” Mascellino said, adding that drivers are taken to UPMC Cranberry or Butler Memorial hospitals where a PennDOT certified laboratory technician takes the blood samples and tests it.
“The most accurate (test) is clearly the blood sample,” Mascellino said. “We haven't had anything suppressed that I can recall lately.”
Bethany Hofstetter is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6364 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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