N.J. Court Ruling Could Affect 10,000 Drunk Driving Cases

April 6, 2007

A breath test used in thousands of drunken driving cases in New Jersey went on trial this week, when the state Supreme Court considered whether the instrument provides reliable blood-alcohol level readings.

The outcome will affect at least 10,000 drunken driving cases that have been hung up — some for more than a year — over questions about the reliability of the machine, the Alcotest 7110.

The Alcotest is the next-generation successor to the Breathalyzer machine and is used in 17 of the state’s 21 counties. The other four still use the Breathalyzer.

The Supreme Court will consider whether the machine is scientifically reliable for establishing blood-alcohol levels in prosecutions. Defense lawyers claim the machine can produce erroneous readings, but the state says it is accurate.

The legal threshold for intoxication in New Jersey is a blood-alcohol level of .08 percent.

Questions over the validity of the Alcotest are as old as the machine itself. After a 13-month trial period for the then-new Alcotest in Camden County in 2001-2002, a Superior Court judge upheld the machine’s use after some defendants challenged its results.

In February, a special master appointed by the Supreme Court concluded that the machine is generally reliable but not perfect, and that it should only be used with some adjustments and discretion.

The master, retired Judge Michael Patrick King, suggested that judges be able to consider other evidence in cases where the Alcotest readings are close to the threshold.

King also said that until the Alcotest machines are outfitted with breath temperature sensors, all the readings should be reduced. Higher breath temperatures give higher blood-alcohol readings, King wrote in his report.

The reliability of the new machines is a big deal in New Jersey because judges, not juries, hear all drunken driving cases. And they are given practically no leeway. If a driver is determined to have a blood-alcohol level above .08 percent, he or she is guilty.

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