Blown Away: Why Police Rely On Faulty Breathalyzers

Nov 6, 2019

Wherever you tried one for whatever reason, an investigation from The New York Times reveals that breathalyzers are often unreliable.

And with a million Americans per year arrested for drunk driving, faulty determinations of an individual’s blood alcohol content could have real consequences.

From The Times’ investigation about these tools:

The machines are sensitive scientific instruments, and in many cases they haven’t been properly calibrated, yielding results that were at times 40 percent too high. Maintaining machines is up to police departments that sometimes have shoddy standards and lack expertise. In some cities, lab officials have used stale or home-brewed chemical solutions that warped results. In Massachusetts, officers used a machine with rats nesting inside.

There’s no way to determine if a police department is using properly-maintained equipment. And many stations don’t follow strenuous maintenance procedures to begin with.

Why are these potentially defective machines still being used? And what do these revelations mean for those arrested due to faulty tests ⁠— and those acquitted when the evidence is thrown out?

Produced by Kathryn Fink.


Jessica Silver-Greenberg, Business reporter, The New York Times; @jbsgreenberg

Jan Semenoff, Forensic criminalist; editor, Counterpoint Journal; @JanSemenoff

Joseph Bernard, Defense attorney; @JoeDBernard

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