Small chemical test errors can have huge impacts in Colorado DUI cases

Small mistakes in blood or breath tests can significantly affect the consequences alleged DUI offenders face, as past Colorado cases have illustrated.

For people in Greeley, the consequences of a DUI conviction can be steep, with punishments including license loss, jail time and fines. Unfortunately, the evidence used to support a conviction for driving while ability impaired or driving under the influence is not foolproof. Even the quantitative evidence that chemical tests offer can be flawed.

Equipment malfunction, human error and other factors can easily give rise to inaccurate breath or blood test results. Sadly, these mistakes can lead to wrongful convictions or inappropriate penalties.

Unnecessary errors

The risk of avoidable chemical testing errors was called to attention earlier this year, when the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported that it could no longer stand by the results of 33 Breathalyzer tests. Quality control issues had affected the tests, which were taken in Weld County in 2013 and early 2014, according to ABC News.

The Intoxilyzer machine used to conduct the 33 tests was not properly calibrated during its initial certification. Furthermore, police officers failed to notice that the calibration results on the tests they performed fell outside of the acceptable range. The error was not caught until a DUI attorney noticed an unusual calibration test result and contacted the device's manufacturer, which then contacted the CDPHE.

Such mistakes are not common, but they are not unprecedented, either. In 2012, the Colorado Department of Health had to retest 1,700 blood tests used as evidence in DUI cases. An employee's breach of protocol called the test results into question, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Significant errors were ultimately identified in 11 of the cases. In some cases, the errors "favored" offenders by understating the level of intoxication. Alarmingly, though, in at least two cases, the retest yielded a lower BAC reading than the initial test.

Impactful mistakes

The errors arising from poor calibrations, protocol breaches and other lapses are often small; for instance, during the 2012 retesting, the new test results never deviated more than 10 percent from the original results. The scale of the errors may seem trivial. Still, these mistakes are serious considering the potential consequences for people with inaccurate results. The Colorado Springs Gazette mentions a few cases from 2012 that illustrate this issue:

  • One alleged offender's BAC dropped from .185 percent to .162 percent. Under the original test, the person was labeled a "high-BAC offender" and would have been subject to mandatory ignition interlock installation for a period of up to two years.
  • Another alleged offender's BAC fell from .206 percent to .167 percent. With the original test results, the offender would have been labeled a high-BAC offender and, as an offender with a BAC level greater than .20 percent, punished with 10 days jail time.
  • Although no such cases were found during the retesting, an incident in which a driver's real BAC level was slightly below the legal limit and measured as greater than .08 percent could also have been impactful.

Undetected chemical test errors may have harmful consequences for many drivers accused of driving under the influence. Fortunately, when such errors are caught, drivers may have grounds for challenging current charges or prior convictions. If significant errors have occurred, the penalties a driver faces may be reduced, or the charges against the driver may be dismissed altogether.

In light of the risk of mistakes affecting the evidence used in DUI cases, anyone accused of driving intoxicated should speak with an attorney for advice on handling the charges.

Keywords: DUI, drunk driving, arrest