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Faulty Breathalyzers Could Nullify DC DUI Convictions

A District of Columbia appellate court has ordered the release of police records showing Breathalyzers used in the nation’s capital were unreliable, prompting speculation that the revelations may justify overturning hundreds of drunk driving convictions dating back four years.

Tom Ramstack at The Legal Forum, notes this isn’t the first time the Metropolitan Police Department’s Breathalyzer, the Intoxilyzer 5000EN, has generated legal concern. An initial round of court action was launched about three years ago, when some roughly 20 lawsuits were filed against the District of Columbia. In those suits, the plaintiffs claimed the device had malfunctioned, leading to wrongful convictions for driving under the influence (DUI). Founding partner David Benowitz was instrumental in calling into question the constitutional violations posed by the malfunctioning devices. The lawsuits that were filed alleged violations of constitutional protections and also named Metropolitan Police Officer Kelvin King as a defendant because it was his responsibility to calibrate the Intoxilyzers to ensure they were providing accurate readings.

In February 2011, the Metropolitan Police confirmed the existence of “a potential problem with the accuracy of the [Intoxilyzer] machines.” That announcement led to the dismissal of nearly all of the drunk driving convictions that had been entered before the confirmation was made public.

But the civil suits against the District and King went forward, prompting the Metropolitan Police Department to seek an outside expert opinion on its Breathalyzer. The analyst chosen for the task, Ilmar Paegle, studied its performance and confirmed its readings were erroneous. As a consequence of Paegle’s study, King then came under official police investigation.

At this point, the Washington DC chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, which is the local police union, stepped into the fray. It filed a claim, under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to compel the Metropolitan Police Department to publicize the results of its Breathalyzer investigation.  At first, the police department refused to comply, claiming that evidence compiled during an official investigation is specifically exempt from FOIA’s disclosure requirements. The union pressed the matter, filed an appeal, and succeeded in persuading the department to release a total of 871 documents.

Still not satisfied, the union demanded more disclosures in the DC Superior Court, where its lawyers said the police department was withholding key information pertaining to defects in the malfunctioning Breathalyzer. When the court disagreed and ruled in favor of the police department, the union took its case to the appellate court.

Earlier this month, the DC Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s ruling and ordered the police department to hand over all of its documents describing its difficulties in maintaining quality control over the Intoxilyzer. Barring the intervention of a federal court, the Metropolitan Police Department must now comply with the order of the appellate court. When the documents finally become available for public review, they may contain damaging revelations that former DUI defendants can use to reopen their drunk driving cases and, possibly, result in negating their convictions.

So once again, hundreds of people convicted of DUI offenses are learning that they may have been unfairly convicted and could possibly see those old convictions tossed out. This is significant on many levels as a DUI conviction can haunt a person for years, particularly when it comes to qualifying for employement and housing. If you have suffered a DUI conviction in Washington, DC since 2010 you may want to contact a dedicated DUI attorney who can review your case and find out if it qualifies for appeal under this latest ruling. David Benowitz and the attorneys he leads at the firm’s Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia offices, are eager to answer all your questions and fight for your rights.

Contact Our DUI Lawyers (301) 761-4842 or (410) 734-2675