Thousands of Washington DUIs Thrown Out of Court over Lab Errors
By: Mike Stetzer
Breath tests are often important pieces of the prosecution's case against you if you have been convicted of a DUI. Granted, they're not infallible, as you'll know if you find a DUI attorney who can challenge your breath test.
But a recent ruling by the King County District Court (Seattle, Washington) that a toxicology lab analyzing breath-test readings had engaged in "fraudulent and scientifically unacceptable" work has now made it a very real possibility that literally thousands of current and past DUI cases could be thrown out of court.
King County is just one of several counties across the region that is hearing attorneys filing motions to throw out their breath test evidence, as the former manager of the state toxicology lab, Ann Marie Gordon, has admitted that she signed her name to tests that she had not done. But, unfortunately for the state, that's just the beginning.
The ruling was handed down by a panel of judges who reviewed the situation, which had been viewed with suspicion in addition to Gordon's admission of her dissembling. The judges' report was scathing in its indictment of the lab, claiming that it had fostered a "culture of compromise" with a variety of "ethical lapses, systemic inaccuracy, negligence and violations of scientific principles."
Besides Gordon's fabricated test results, machine-calibration errors were a huge concern as well as the software used to analyze the breath samples. For instance, the machine omitted the results of four of the lab's 16 analysts, which meant that significant amounts of data were not included in test results. The judge's panel ruled that the software was not tested sufficiently to ensure proper function.
As a result of these errors, eight cases currently being heard at the King County District Court, as well as more than 100 cases slated to be heard in the coming weeks will be directly affected. Further, it could open the door for literally thousands of cases previously concluded to be reopened in a court of appeals.
As I mentioned previously, and as we like to remind readers of Total DUI, breath test results are far from being ironclad in their certainty. On the contrary, breath test results are just one piece in a larger case that the prosecuting attorney must make. However, even though instructed against it, the certainty of having a concrete number-despite the fact that it may in fact be inaccurate-will often influence the outcome of your case.
And prosecutors from King County are facing a frustrating prospect of having to work their cases around this crucial piece of evidence, using eyewitness testimony and police reports for more of their case than they normally would. But news reports on the matter indicate that they aren't backing down and letting any charges slide.
Though some charges may be reduced, it may not affect sentencing greatly, according to Washington DUI laws. News reports indicate that in nearby Snohomish County, which just ruled that breath tests analyzed by the state are invalid, many cases were plea-bargained down to lesser crimes such as reckless or negligent driving. The main difference between the charges? The penalties are the same, but a reckless driving charge is only on one's record for 5 years in Washington instead of 15, as in the case of DUI.
For sure, prosecutors and law enforcement officers alike are hoping that the review results in major improvements and changes at the toxicology lab.