A single person taking a small shortcut in the calibration of breath-test machines has wasted the time of tens of thousands of police and court personnel.
That shouldn’t have happened, especially when it was so clear how it could be avoided.
The New Jersey Supreme Court last week ruled unanimously that a State Police technician’s failure to properly calibrate Alcotest devices means 20,667 cases of driving while intoxicated are invalid. Convictions must be retried if requested, and cases still pending may just be abandoned.
The Supreme Court in 2008 had found the Alcotest 7110 to be scientifically reliable and its results acceptable as evidence as long as it is properly calibrated. The court helpfully described that calibration in detail, including the use of a National Institute of Science and Technology traceable thermometer.
Authorities said that between 2008 and 2016, Sgt. Marc Dennis skipped that step in the calibration of the devices in use in Ocean, Monmouth, Middlesex, Somerset and Union counties.
When the state found out about it, the Attorney General’s Office asked the Supreme Court to deem the calibration proper without the use of the traceable thermometer, since New Jersey is the only state requiring it and other calibration methods also ensure accuracy. The court named a former appellate division judge its special master to investigate that possibility.
In May, Judge Joseph Lisa’s 218-page report found that the state did not “clearly and convincingly prove” that failure to use the thermometer doesn’t undermine the results. Last week, the court said it saw no reason to question Lisa’s determination.
The Alcotest devices probably were accurate in most or even all of those 20,667 cases — but test evidence is an area where probably isn’t enough. As New Jersey State Bar Association President John Keefe Jr. said after the decision, breath-test results are “such a crucial piece of information used in the prosecutions of anyone facing DWI charges” and “cannot be cross examined.”
The required level of credibility was the whole point of the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling. It specified exactly how the devices should be calibrated to be completely reliable.
Yet insufficient oversight of the calibration process by the State Police allowed one officer to take a shortcut, apparently without the knowledge of any supervisor or fellow officer. Sgt. Dennis has been indicted for falsifying test results and his trial is pending.
Problems with machines and devices used in law enforcement are sufficiently common that there is no excuse for the State Police to allow sloppiness in their calibration. In the past few years alone, courts have found problems with the accuracy of breath-test machines in Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Missouri.
The invalidation of Alcotest results in 20,667 cases is not the legal system splitting hairs over calibration protocols. It is the failure of State Police management to reliably ensure that procedures detailed by the New Jersey Supreme Court are followed.