Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
Ripple effect in Dauphin ruling on DUI method?
BY BRETT HAMBRIGHT, Staff Writer
Is blood or breath the best way to detect drunken driving?
A recent ruling from a Dauphin County judge has raised that question while challenging the way police test for DUI.
The ruling, which booted several DUI charges in Dauphin County that involved a breath-test machine that's come under questioning, has caused Pennsylvania State Police to suspend troopers' use of that method.
That means troopers now must take every motorist suspected of DUI to a hospital for blood testing -- deemed by police as the most reliable, but more time-consuming, method.
Local law-enforcers say the court ruling won't affect Lancaster County's municipal departments -- yet.
The Dauphin County ruling applies specifically to the Intoxilyzer 5000EN machine, according to police.
"That's a different machine," West Lampeter Township police Chief James Walsh said Thursday, noting his department uses the Datamaster DMT, which it shares with other departments.
Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said he isn't aware of any local departments that use the Intoxilyzer 5000EN. However, he still sent memos to all departments about the Dauphin County ruling.
"It is up to each department," Stedman said. "We gave them our opinion, which included the fact that blood test is the surest, and to cease using the machine in question if they are.
"This office believes that there is no need to suspend breath-testing in Lancaster County at this time."
The state Superior Court could ultimately make blood-testing the gold standard, depending on how it rules on Dauphin County prosecutors' appeal.
"The Superior Court will determine if the science of breath-test machines is faulty," said Lancaster defense lawyer Steven Breit, who specializes in DUI cases.
Stedman expects the court to address only the specific machine in question in Dauphin County, which is widely used by state troopers. But, he acknowledged, it's up to the court to decide how broad of a scope its ruling will take.
Breit said the Dauphin County ruling is unique because defense lawyers didn't challenge a common technicality, such as an officer's administration of a test.
"That case actually challenged the science of the machines," he said, noting that it cost about $20,000 to form the team of defense experts that challenged the machine's readings.
Even if the Superior Court narrows its ruling to only the Intoxilyzer 5000EN, it still could prompt local police to think twice about any breath test, Breit speculated.
"I think you'll see less departments using the breath-testing machines," he said. "Challenges to blood draws are much more difficult than breath-test machines. Blood tests will take out that doubt of guilt-by-machine."
Local law-enforcers didn't disclose any immediate plans to eliminate breath-testing. Many local municipal departments already rely on blood testing; others, including West Lampeter, use a combination of blood and breath, according to Chief Walsh.
"We advised them that because the machines we use are very different from the one in Dauphin, we believe that their tests should (still) be valid," Stedman said of his memo to police departments. "We also let them know the surest and safest method is blood testing."
Assistant District Attorney Ande Gonzalez explained differences in the two tests. A blood test is more costly, around $130 to $150 per test, he said. It's also more time-consuming. An offender is taken to a local hospital for a blood draw, meaning a wait in line is likely. Police are required to administer the test within two hours of a traffic stop, Gonzalez said.
A breath test, meanwhile, is done at the police station, he said. "In 30 to 40 minutes, the breath test can be done," Gonzalez said.
Breath tests only detect alcohol; blood tests also detect illegal drugs.
"This is going to result, maybe, in more charges," Gonzalez said of increased blood testing.