Crime lab reveals faulty breathalyzers

FRIDAY, AUG. 10, 2007

For the second time in two months, Washington State Crime Lab officials have publicly acknowledged an error in operations.

State authorities announced Thursday that a breathalyzer machine in Spokane County Jail was not calibrated correctly, which resulted in hundreds of faulty alcohol test readings between Feb. 2, 2006, and Jan. 4, 2007.

Last month, it was made public that the blood vials of a man facing three counts of vehicular homicide and vehicular assault had been lost. Fred Russell – who fled to Ireland and was later extradited – is accused of driving drunk and causing a four-car wreck that killed three people on the Moscow-Pullman Highway in June 2001.

On Thursday, officials said that of the hundreds of cases where the breathalyzer readings were off by a thousandth of a percent, only eight cases had the potential of a negative impact on defendants.

“We fully disclosed the situation to prosecutors as soon as it was discovered and assessed,” said Dr. Barry Logan of the Washington State Patrol Forensic Laboratory Services Bureau. “There are very few cases affected, but each case is important to us.”

In four of the cases, the driver’s alcohol test showed a 0.08 reading, when in fact it was 0.079, Logan said. A person is legally intoxicated at 0.08 percent.

But in all four cases the people pleaded to a lesser offense, such as negligent driving, Logan said.

“We were reviewing our methods and protocol” when the error was discovered, Logan said. “We do take this very seriously. And when something like this happens, we want to make sure we put it right.”

In four additional cases, people were alleged to have a blood alcohol level of 0.15 percent, instead of 0.149 percent, Logan said. A 0.15 percent reading can result in stiffer penalties.

In two of those cases, that was what happened, Logan said. Those two people will be contacted by Washington State Patrol and the state’s Department of Licensing.

However, Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor Brian O’Brien said those penalties weren’t severe and perhaps involved an ignition lock – a device that detects whether the driver has been drinking before they are allowed to start a car – and he wasn’t even sure if that penalty had been applied.

O’Brien said even if one test was off slightly, the drivers take two breathalyzer tests. The prosecutor also said it’s rare for a person to be convicted on the alcohol reading registered by a test.

The other 576 cases involved readings that would not have made a difference in either the determination of guilt, or at sentencing, Logan said.

The WSP forensics director explained that the miscalculations occurred after his staff was increased from 12 to 16 scientists in August 2005.

Although software used to calibrate breath alcohol instruments was amended so the additional scientists could enter their data, their results were not included in calculations.

As a result, only 12 of the 16 readings were included in the calibrations.

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