Judge says breath analyzer works well enough

A Minnesota judge says a machine that's used to measure the blood alcohol level of drunk driving suspects has some flaws, but results from it are still admissible as evidence in DWI cases.

If his ruling stands, it'll mean more than 4,000 pending drunk driving cases could finally go to trial.

When police take a suspected drunk driver back to headquarters, they have the suspect blow into the breath analyzer, a desktop machine about the size of a big cash register. It determines how much alcohol is in the person's blood. If the machine reads above 0.8, the suspect could face a DWI charge.

But for more than four years, a group of defense lawyers has been challenging results from one model of machine -- the Intoxilyzer 5000EN. They say its computer software is flawed. Attorney Derek Patrin said false readings could mean false convictions.

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"What we're looking at as defense attorneys is are these testing methods being conducted in a way that is accurate, reliable and can be relied upon in court when you're trying to convict somebody beyond a reasonable doubt?" he said.

On Tuesday, Scott County Judge Jerome Abrams said though the Intoxilyzer does have some problems, it's still accurate enough to use in court. His ruling did not determine anyone's guilt or innocence. It just means that thousands of DWI prosecutions that had been in limbo may finally get to trial.

That could mean a busy docket in some places, but not Minneapolis. City Attorney Susan Segal said only 15 cases there involve the Intoxilyzer.

"The city took a fairly conservative approach, and we advised our police department to switch to blood and urine testing when this appeared to be an issue," she said. "So we've been able to proceed with our DWI cases using blood and urine testing."

Segal says body fluid tests are slow and expensive, but Minneapolis will return to breath tests only when -- and if -- challenges to the Intoxilyzer conclude.

Lynne Goughler, with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, hopes that will happen soon. She said she's confident the Intoxilyzer will be vindicated.

"We believe the machine works," she said. "I don't know all the inner workings of the Intoxilyzer, but there's been enough researchers and scientists involved to say yes, this machine works."

However the attorneys challenging the machine's reliability say they'll appeal yesterday's ruling. And as the case winds through the courts, it'll mean more delays in those thousands of DWI prosecutions across the state based on Intoxilyzer readings.