In a lengthy article published in November, the New York Times sharply criticized police use of alcohol breath testing machines it described as dangerously inaccurate.
The headline on the story: “These Machines Can Put You in Jail — Don’t Trust Them.”
But David Astles, a forensic criminalist with the Washoe Crime Lab, said that story misrepresented DUI enforcement and alcohol testing, at least in Nevada.
“It put together this kind of mosaic of the problems and suggested they’re universal,” he said.
Astles said the biggest issue the Times story missed is that, before anyone is tested, the police officer has to have a reason to stop them.
“What the New York Times article kind of skipped over is that the officer has to have probable cause to pull you over in the first place,” he said.
That means the officer has already seen signs of impairment.
The Times article charged that those test machines are sensitive electronic devices, “and in many cases they haven’t been properly calibrated, yielding results that were at times 40 percent too high.”
As a result, numerous DUI cases in several eastern states had to be thrown out.
It said maintaining the machines is up to the police departments which sometimes have shoddy standards and lack expertise.
In some cases, the article said agencies even disabled safeguards designed to keep the machines accurate.
Not so in Nevada, said Astles.
“We actually have a very robust and fairly highly regulated system here in Nevada,” he said.
Under a law originally approved in 1983, the Committee on Testing for Intoxication oversees all alcohol testing statewide.
“Unlike other jurisdictions where police agencies can calibrate the equipment, here only forensic analysts of alcohol can calibrate the breath test,” Astles said.
Those analysts are trained and certified by the company that makes the machines.
Astles said the only people who calibrate the machines in Nevada are the three professionals employed by the Washoe Crime Lab — including himself — and the two employed by the Metro Crime Lab in Las Vegas.
He said they are required to calibrate the devices at least once every 90 days. They are responsible for all 27 of the machines in Northern Nevada from Stateline at the Lake to West Wendover on the Utah border — including the one in Carson City.
In the process, they also make sure those machines are kept in safe, controlled environments. If one is acting up, he said they replace it with a machine that has been tested as accurate.
Those same analysts also teach the police and sheriff’s officers how to properly do the DUI tests.
Before every test on a suspected DUI driver, Astles said the machine tests itself using a sample containing a known percentage of alcohol contained in a bottle locked inside the machine. If the read out doesn’t match the known sample, the machine shuts itself down.
A test requires the defendant be tested at least twice and that the read outs be within 0.02 of each other. If they aren’t, the officer can test a third time and if the readings are still outside that 0.02 mark, the printout will say, “Not a valid test.”
The machines are so sophisticated, he said they can detect acetone in some one’s breath that might indicate a false high reading because that person is having a diabetic crisis.
One key factor Astles says many in Nevada don’t realize is that 0.08 percent isn’t required to convict a driver of DUI.
“In Nevada, it is illegal to drive impaired regardless of the actual number you may come up with on testing,” he said. “You can be arrested and convicted of impaired driving at a blood alcohol below 08.”
He said that’s especially true if some one combines alcohol with drugs.
“The combined effects can be very impairing.”
He said officers on he street are all taught that, if they have any reason to suspect drug use, don’t even do the breath test, get a warrant for a blood test.
“There have no doubt been some problems in some jurisdictions but the problems that were described in the article seem to be system problems and people problems,” he said. “We have a lot of oversight that some states seem not to have.”