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SJC Affirms Scientific Reliability of Breathalyzer Evidence

1174747_by_a_beerIn Commonwealth v. Camblin, the SJC affirmed the denial of the defendant’s “motion to exclude [breathalyzer] evidence as scientifically unreliable” in the defendant’s trial for operating under the influence of alcohol.

The background was as follows. The defendant was charged “with operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol…. Before trial, the defendant moved to exclude admission of breath test evidence generated by the” breathalyzer utilized by the police, the Alcotest 7110 MK III-C (Alcotest). The judge denied the motion without conducting a DaubertLanigan hearing as to the scientific reliability of the Alcotest. The case proceeded to a jury trial at which the defendant was found “guilty of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol and operating a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol level of or exceeding 0.08 per cent.” In response to the defendant’s direct appeal, in which he challenged the scientific reliability of the Alcotest, the SJC remanded the case to the trial court. On remand, the judge conducted a DaubertLanigan hearing, after which he “found that the Alcotest was capable of producing scientifically reliable breath test results, and denied the defendant’s motion to exclude this evidence at his trial.” In the present appeal, “[t]he defendant … contend[ed] that the judge abused his discretion in finding that the Alcotest satisfies the DaubertLanigan standard for the admissibility of scientific evidence.” The “focus of the defendant’s challenge … [was] that,” contrary to the judge’s finding, the Alcotest “cannot distinguish ethanol from other ‘interfering’ substances that might be present in a breath sample.”

In its decision, the SJC concluded that the judge did not abuse his discretion in ruling that the Alcotest was scientifically reliable under the DaubertLanigan standard. Of significance to the Court was the judge’s reliance on the fact that the Alcotest is “a ‘dual sensoric instrument’ because it utilizes both infrared spectroscopy and electrochemical fuel cell sampling to analyze alcohol content in a breath sample.” “[T]he Alcotest compares the infrared spectrometry and electrochemical fuel cell test results.” “To produce a valid [blood alcohol] test result, the [two readings] must be in agreement with one another.” “If the two components produce substantially different measurements of a subject’s [blood alcohol] level, the Alcotest is designed to flag the differences as caused by an interfering substance, and thereafter to abort the test.” The SJC noted that “[a]t the time that the evidentiary hearing was held on remand, no other breathalyzer used a dual-sensor system.” Also significant to the SJC was the judge’s reliance on (1) the fact that the Alcotest had “met specific performance criteria” established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “the agency statutorily required to certify breathalyzers in the Commonwealth”; and (2) the opinion of the Commonwealth’s expert that “the Alcotest was even able to meet the certification requirements of the” Organisation Internationale de Métrologie Légale, an agency whose “certification requirements [for breath-testing devices in Europe] generally are viewed as being much more stringent than those applicable in the United States.”

An OUI charge has significant and far-reaching potential consequences for a defendant – a continuance without a finding or a conviction results in the loss of license, which can in turn have a major impact on a person’s ability to obtain employment and/or get to work. Breathalyzer evidence often plays a large role in a defendant’s decision to proceed to trial and it is unfortunate that the SJC ruled as it did in this case. Attorney Daniel Cappetta has successfully represented many clients charged with OUI offenses and always gets the best results possible. If you or a loved on is facing such charges, call him today for a free consultation.