Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Decides for Driver In DUI Question

In Massachusetts, if you are pulled over under suspicion of DUI or OUI, you will be given the option to take a breathalyzer test, during which two breath samples are taken. Two samples are taken so the accuracy of one can be checked against the other.

If the two breath samples differ by more than 0.02 percent, the results are deemed to be inaccurate and inadmissible in court. If the samples are within 0.02 percent of each other, then they may be considered to be accurate — but only the lower reading is used as evidence in court.

Earlier this year, Dennis Steele was pulled over under suspicion of drunk driving. He was tested with a breathalyzer — blowing 0.09 percent blood alcohol content (BAC) on his first try and 0.10 just a moment later. In accordance with Massachusetts statute, the lower reading was admitted into evidence.

However, prosecuting attorneys representing Franklin and Hampshire Counties attempted to include the higher BAC reading during the trial, citing its importance as evidence. After Mr. Steele's conviction, the case found itself before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

In Commonwealth vs. Dennis P. Steele, the highest court in the state found on behalf of Mr. Steele, upholding the original statute and rendering the higher BAC reading inadmissible.

There has been some dissatisfaction among law enforcement agencies with this ruling, but it's important to remember why two readings are taken in the first place. Two readings are required to ensure the accuracy or "validity" of the breathalyzer test — not to attain additional evidence. If too large a gap is found between the first and second reading, a more accurate reading should be sought to be used as evidence.

Further, many questions have been raised recently on how well breathalyzer tests report actual BAC. The accuracy of breath tests largely depends on the officer administrating the test and the overall quality of the testing device itself. A higher reading may not be the result of under-estimated BAC, but improper use of the breathalyzer and/or a miscalculation.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court based its decision on a desire to uphold the current state statute already in place and to avoid courtroom confusion. While the ruling does, technically, benefit drivers, it does not seem to do so at the expense of public safety.