Lab Results in DUI Cases In Arizona City Challenged

April 8, 2013

The accuracy of blood-testing equipment used by Scottsdale, Ariz. police in drunken driving cases is being challenged.

Hundreds of drunken driving cases from the past four years could be called into question if the legal challenge is successful, the Arizona Republic reported. The case could also affect the treatment of forensic evidence in Arizona courts.

Eleven felony DUI cases have been consolidated into an ongoing evidentiary hearing in Superior Court. The question is whether a crime lab technician’s decision to use old software on a new blood-testing machine in 2009 has affected evidence handled by Scottsdale’s crime lab.

Scottsdale police have declined to comment but issued a statement Friday saying the lab has been accredited since 1996 because its practices for maintaining equipment meet or exceed national standards.

Defense attorneys are questioning whether the lab should be accredited.

“We have a laboratory where the blood results are being used to decide whether people go to jail or prison. For the last going on four years now, at least once a month, every month, there’s some huge error where there’s an unexpected result,” said Joseph St. Louis, a Tucson attorney involved in the case.

St. Louis said the crime lab has yet to solve the problem to ensure results are accurate.

“They simply rerun the tests, and if the second time the results seem to be more normal or accurate, they go with those,” he said.

Court documents indicate Scottsdale police have been aware of potential problems with the blood-testing equipment for years. For example, the equipment mislabeled vials with wrong names or numbers, quit running during tests and erased baseline information from measurements during test runs, according to court documents.

In 2009, a crime lab supervisor decided to use software from an old machine on a newer blood-testing machine because lab employees, police and attorneys were used to reading the reports from the old machine, according to court documents.

By the following summer, the supervisor determined the old software was incompatible because half of the information on the reports was “gobbley-gook,” according to testimony the supervisor gave in a related case.

The machine’s manufacturer sent a technician to install a patch but said it would not be liable for problems with the software. The supervisor later testified that the patch did not fix the problem.

The manufacturer refused to exchange the machine, a forensic scientist with the crime lab testified during an unrelated case last month.

Scottsdale police issued citations for more than 2,500 DUIs last year, according to the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. About 150 of those were the type of felony DUIs that end up in Maricopa County Superior Court. The vast majority go to Scottsdale City Court, where attorneys say most judges don’t let juries hear information about potential problems with crime-lab evidence.

“Forget about suppressing, they’re not even letting juries know this is going on,” said Lawrence Koplow, a Phoenix defense attorney involved in the case. “They’re letting juries hear from the crime lab, ‘We’re confident that this machine is accurate within 5 percent,’ when the reality is there’s all this evidence to the contrary.”

Court documents show that all 11 of the consolidated cases involve serious DUI allegations. At least two of the suspects submitted themselves to preliminary breath tests, and their blood-alcohol content registered more than 0.20 percent, more than twice the legal limit. At least eight of the suspects had prior DUI convictions.

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