May 2015 Bar Bulletin
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May 2015 Bar Bulletin

New Breath-Testing Device Faces Challenges

By Francisco Duarte


Last November the Washington State Patrol unveiled the Draeger Alcotest 9510, the next generation of forensic breath-testing devices to be used in DUI enforcement across the state. It was the culmination of an internal, four-year process, leading to the deployment of the device first in Whatcom, Island, San Juan, Skagit and Snohomish counties.

"This is another step in our agency's long-standing effort to remove dangerously impaired drivers from our state's highways," said Chief R. Batiste. "We've made great strides toward our goal of zero annual traffic fatalities, and this device will help move the needle even further."

The Draeger will eventually replace the antiquated DataMaster, a device that has proven successful in court, but is no longer being manufactured.

"The DataMaster was first brought to Washington in the early 1980s, and remains in service with the same ol' technology," said Diana Lundin, a Seattle attorney practicing DUI defense and appeals. She is not alone in her assessment of the DataMaster.

In 2009, Deputy Chief Dave Karnitz wrote in an email, "DataMasters are obsolete and the new technology is the emerging national standard." These machines appear to have exceeded their lifespan. Sgt. Ken Denton remarked the same year that the manufacturer of the DataMaster, National Patent Analytical Systems, "recommends replacement at eight years as that's the 'typical' industry standard for electronics."

Breath testing in Washington is changing. Draeger describes the machine as "the most advanced Evidential Breath-Alcohol Testing instrument exceeding all national and international program requirements." The device analyzes and quantifies breath alcohol by employing two different and independent technologies: infrared spectroscopy and electrochemical cell technology.

Currently, the DataMaster analyzes and quantifies breath alcohol content utilizing only infrared spectroscopy and prints a ticket displaying the results of the two independent exhaled breaths (blows). The Draeger Alcotest 9510 will double the test results.

A complete test requires the driver to blow twice into the machine and the Draeger will produce two measurements per blow (one by infrared spectroscopy and the other by electrochemical cell technology). Thus, the Draeger's breath-test ticket will display a total of four readings. That factor alone is enough to terrorize DUI defense attorneys tasked with the job of challenging the accuracy and reliability of the breath test.

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