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Public owed an explanation on breathalyzer glitch

DOUBTS ABOUT the accuracy of breathalyzer devices to test a driver’s blood-alcohol levels have lingered for years. And yet the criminal justice system relies on these tests in drunk-driving cases. But now that some prosecutors have abandoned the test until a full review can be completed, it’s only sensible for district attorneys statewide to suspend use of breathalyzers as well.

As the Globe reported last week, some district attorneys are concerned about the reliability of breathalyzers. Calibration issues in the machine seem to be at the center of the review, but the exact nature of the problem remains unclear.


This lack of confidence in the device, as well as the uneven use of breathalyzers throughout the Commonwealth, raises troubling questions. Potentially hundreds of charges of operating under the influence across the state can be legally challenged now, costing the state and taxpayers if those cases need to be reopened or retried. In the interest of transparency and accountability, a thorough and independent review should be launched, in addition to the one now being conducted by the State Police, and all use of breath tests should be halted by all district attorneys until the investigation is completed.

The Massachusetts Bar Association agrees: “Some in the defense community would question the findings of a police department or police agency regarding the very device that they use to prosecute and convict individuals for drunk driving,” the president of the group told the Globe. The public at large also deserves to know the real scope of the problem. State officials report that questions were first raised about the breathalyzer test in mid-March, and that about 69 out of approximately 6,000 test results seem to be in dispute. But many in the legal community doubt the accuracy of that number, which could easily grow as the review intensifies. Law enforcement authorities need to be upfront and release all information pertaining to the real issue with the devices and the cases being reviewed.


Although it may not reach the level of the Annie Dookhan case — the state lab chemist who compromised hundreds of drug cases a few years ago — the prospect of reams of unreliable evidence suggests unfair convictions and that potential rash of retrials. State authorities need to be upfront about any possible forensic science failures. It’s a matter of basic criminal justice, and of potentially vast and unnecessary costs to taxpayers.