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State troopers to use blood, not breath, to determine if drivers are under influence

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Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

State troopers will use blood, not breath, to determine whether drivers are under the influence of alcohol, because the state Superior Court is scrutinizing a county judge's ruling that questions the accuracy of breath tests.

The change means state police will have to wait weeks for laboratory results, but the method is expected to spike the number of DUI-related drug charges because toxicology tests can determine whether blood samples contain illegal drugs in addition to alcohol.

“The breath test is for alcohol only,” said Trooper Adam Reed, a state police spokesman. “Blood tests can come back and say there is marijuana in that person's system, or bath salts, cocaine, prescription drugs and other things that are also impairing that person's ability to drive.”

Dauphin County Judge Lawrence F. Clark Jr. ruled last month that breath tests aren't accurate at levels of intoxication beyond 0.15 percent, which typically result in harsher punishments for suspects convicted of drunken driving. The legal limit in Pennsylvania is 0.08. Clark's ruling affects cases only in Dauphin County. District Attorney Ed Marsico has filed an appeal to overturn it, but if the state Superior Court upholds the ruling, it could hurt drunken-driving prosecutions statewide.

Reed said state police instituted the temporary suspension on using breath tests this month as a precaution.

In 2011, state police made 51,716 arrests for driving under the influence, a slight drop from 52,495 arrests in 2010. Those arrested were overwhelmingly men (76 percent); white (85 percent); and 25 or older (73 percent), according to state police statistics.

Pittsburgh and Philadelphia police officials said they have no plans to stop using breath tests.

“We have consulted with the district attorney's office and continue to use the Breathalyzer as our primary means of testing in DUI related cases,” Pittsburgh police Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson said in a statement. “The arresting officer has the option, by statute, to choose whether a Breathalyzer or a blood draw will be conducted.”

Cathy Tress, director of the western office of the Pennsylvania DUI Association, said suspects routinely challenge drunken-driving arrests in court.

The difference this time is that a judge ruled in favor of a defense attorney's argument that the results produced by the Intoxilyzer 5000EN were not scientifically reliable because the device is not calibrated in the field to interpret results higher than 0.15 percent or lower than 0.05 percent.

State police use the same Intoxilyzer machine, which requires suspects to blow into a tube. The machine uses infrared light to analyze the alcohol content.

Tress said the checkpoint task forces her organization works with have phlebotomists on site to draw blood from suspected drunken drivers. Those who refuse can lose their driver's licenses for a year. She's not worried that the court dispute will affect the ability of task forces to catch drunken drivers at checkpoints.

“Our No. 1 one goal is to remove impaired drivers from the roadway,” she said.

Jeremy Boren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7935 or jboren@tribweb.com.

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