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Startling 'New York Times' report details unreliability of breathalyzers

Thousands of cases have been thrown out across the country

In the past 12 months, in just one single year, Massachusetts and New Jersey judges have thrown out more than 30,000 breath tests due to human error and lax governmental oversight, according to a new report from The New York Times. The statistic comes from a wider investigation into the accuracy, consistency, and trustworthiness of breathalyzers across the country. In some instances, improperly calibrated devices reportedly produced results up to 40 percent higher than reality.

The Times published an in-depth investigation into the faults of breathalyzers and roadside DUI arrests. During its time looking into the subject, its reporters interviewed more than 100 lawyers, scientists, executives and police officers. They also sifted through tens of thousands of pages of related documents such as court records, emails, contracts, and corporate papers. What they found casts a large shadow of doubt on the reliability of the current process for reading a person's blood alcohol level.

There are numerous ways things can go wrong. Sometimes the machine is simply not calibrated properly. Sometimes the machine is old and no longer works right. Sometimes poor maintenance skews results, improperly mixed "home-brewed chemical solutions" alter the readings, or sometimes the actual programming in the machine is riddled with errors. On certain handheld devices, breath mints can knock a reading off the trail. No matter the issue, when a procedure for reading a driver's blood alcohol content is compromised, it holds two paths of danger.

At the time of judgment, an ill-reading breathalyzer could let drunk drivers go or "catch" drivers who are actually below the legal limit. Then, if a court later throws out cases because of faulty readings, like the more than 36,000 that were thrown out in Massachusetts, real drunk drivers could be released without proper justice.

The investigation goes into detail about the origins of reading alcohol on a human's breath and uses several different cases to demonstrate just how messy things can get in relation to breathalyzer upkeep and modifications. One police department even drilled a hole in a device to "fix" low readings. Read more at The New York Times.

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