A large crowd of attorneys and people charged with drunk driving met in Minneapolis Tuesday morning to prepare for a statewide court case that could potentially impact hundreds of DWI cases in Minnesota.
The case challenges the reliability of the Intoxilyzer, an instrument widely used to measure the blood alcohol level of a person who's suspected of drunken driving. Some prosecutors say if the judge finds problems with the machines, they might have to discard some DWI cases.
The Intoxilyzer is a large machine, usually housed in police stations. It's designed to produce a more accurate analysis of blood alcohol levels than the handheld devices used by officers in the field.
Defense attorney Derek Patrin says there's a lot riding on the accuracy of the machines.
"This breath sample that's being collected and then just destroyed -- no defendant can never retest it and make sure it's accurate, like DNA testing or other types of forensic evidence," said Patrin. "Once that machine tests that sample, it's gone. So this machine has to be right."
Last year, one of Patrin's clients challenged the results of an Intoxilyzer analysis. The Minnesota Supreme Court confirmed the person was entitled to view the source code -- the language used to write the program running the Intoxilyzer 5000.
Patrin says in the case of someone who tests at or just slightly above the legal limit of .08, a slight error in the code could have a drastic effect.
"Losing driving privileges, facing jail time, facing decreased standing when it comes to employment opportunities -- all of these types of things affect peoples' livelihood and their life," he said.
Patrin -- whose law firm, Meaney and Patrin, advertises as the "DWI Guys" -- is optimistic that a judge will find problems with the Intoxilyzer's code.
If that happens, some DWI cases -- although it's hard to tell how many -- may be overturned.
Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal says her office handled more than 1,500 DWI cases in 2009. But last year, Segal says the city saw the writing on the wall and stopped using the Intoxilyzer before many other cities did.
That means if a judge rules the machines are not accurate, the city will only have to drop 18 DWI cases.
"We were fairly conservative on it, which is why we are in a relatively good position and have been able to continue to pursue these cases," Segal said. "These are among the more important cases our office is responsible for prosecuting."
The city's decision to forgo breath analysis has meant that DWI suspects are given blood and urine tests. Segal says those test results may take six weeks, making a speedy trial a bit challenging.
Segal and other law enforcement officials say the Intoxilyzer challenge is without merit. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman says Intoxilyzers are widely accepted as accurate enough.
"Frankly, the science is very good. The question is, are the Intoxilyzers wrong? Very rarely," said Freeman. "The science isn't quite as good as DNA, but I think the defense attorneys are doing what defense attorneys are supposed to do. They challenge every part of the system."
The Intoxilyzer hearing is scheduled to start in September.