Breath Tests Found Unreliable & Thrown Out in Washington State Court

February 15, 2008

Once again the courts have gotten fed up with such sloppy and dishonest police practices that they have thrown out the whole procedure until it is fixed. This time it’s in Seattle Washington. King County District Judges Steiner, Phillipson and Chow said there were so many ethical lapses at the state toxicology lab that the breath test result should not be admitted at trial.

The judges said the lab’s work on breath tests over the past several years had so many problems that they were completely unreliable. Therefore, these tests will not be allowed into evidence in this court.

Prosecutors can still pursue their cases with other evidence, such observations of bad driving or field sobriety tests, but not the breath tests. This will affect not only future prosecutions but could allow defendants already convicted to appeal their convictions if based on these breath tests.

Although this ruling affects only the members of the panel of judges who made the ruling, it could influence the other eighteen district judges in the King County, the largest county in the state of Washington, and it could cause judges in other counties to follow suit.

King County prosecutes approximately 5,000 drunk driving cases every year. Previously, Snohomish County, Washington, judges threw out breath test results for about forty cases for the same reason of unreliability of the state lab work.

This ruling was the result of a hearing that lasted for seven days and produced evidence of false certification of solutions used to verify breath tests, improper rejection of data, mistaken switched data, and reliance on software that miscalculated data.

Many defense attorneys from the state joined to pay the $25,000 costs to pay for the expert witnesses, transcripts and other expenses it took to challenge the work of the state toxicology laboratory. One of these lawyers commented that they it was a matter of the integrity of the justice system.

The King County judges told prosecutors they could later try to admit evidence of breath tests after they demonstrated the lab’s practices had been remedied. This will no doubt help put the burden of proof back on police and prosecutors rather than requiring innocent people to prove that false evidence is being used against them.

After all, our country was founded on the principal that the accused is presumed innocent, until proven guilty, not the other way around.

Are Longer Sentences Effective at Deterring Crime?

February 4, 2008

Congress and many state legislatures have, for the past 20 years, shown little restraint in heading toward higher and higher sentences. Getting tough on crime is always popular, and raising sentences is perhaps a legislature’s only way to do its part. There is no such thing as being too tough on crime.

Actually fighting crime is up to the law enforcement agencies, the prosecutors, the judges, and the prisons. But legislatures want to be seen as making their contribution, so they keep raising the maximum penalties and issuing mandatory minimum sentences.

But it hasn’t worked, of course. It pleases the public to hear what the Congress and the state legislatures are doing: No more Mr. Nice Guy on Crime. But it has not deterred crime. And, by the way, the public is tired of paying for all this extra, extra, extra.

A New York Times editorial in October, 2007, in assessing mandatory minimum sentencing, said laws passed in New York during the 1970’s “drove up the prison population tenfold and cost the state a fortune, did nothing to curb the drug trade, tied the hands of judges and destroyed countless young lives by requiring long prison terms in cases where lenience and drug treatment were clearly warranted.”

Michigan has recently gone the other way. Michigan has repealed almost all of the state’s mandatory minimum drug statutes long cited among the toughest in the country, replacing them with drug sentencing guidelines that give discretion back to the Michigan judges.

A 2006 National Center for State Courts survey found 29 states reporting no effort to counter mandatory minium sentence provisions, and six other states were creating new mandatory minimum penalties.
Oklahoma, however, may be learning from its mistakes. The Oklahoma Community Sentencing Act now gives courtroom judges the flexibility to sentence drug offenders to treatment programs instead of mandatory prison time. And an editorial in the Daily Oklahoman on February 3, 2008 suggested the Oklahoma state legislature shape its policies for tomorrow with the following:

“Lawmakers are part of the problem in maintaining a system that pursues justice by locking up too many people for too many crimes for too long. They can be part of the solution with sentencing reform and by admitting that we can’t afford the status quo. Also needed are changes in the parole system.”

It’s time to realize simply lengthening all sentences has not worked, and other avenues for rehabilitation should be examined.