Recent Alcotest Developments

There were arguments at the New Jersey Supreme Court this past Monday over the state’s new drunk driving test, the Alcotest. The state Supreme Court judges must put their stamp of approval on the machine for it to go live statewide. For them to do so, they must determine that it is scientifically reliable enough to be used in DWI prosecutions in New Jersey. The Alcotest 7110, which would replace the Breathalyzer which has been in use since the 1950s, has been used in 17 counties since early 2006. The New Jersey Supreme Court has stayed sentencing pending its review of the machine’s reliability. As many as 7,800 defendants in DWI cases based on the Alcotest are awaiting the Court’s ruling on the machine’s reliability. In November, Special Master Michael Patrick King concluded, based on a voluminous fact-finding record, that the Alcotest is scientifically reliable for evidentiary purposes, subject to safeguards meant to compensate for software flaws. It was his second report recommending implementation, and Monday was the Court’s second hearing on whether to adopt King’s recommendation.

There are experts that contend that errors in Alcotest readings are still possible due to software and mechanical issues. The Alcotest performs two tests on each breath sample, using electrochemical and infrared technology, but the electrochemical test tends to become less accurate over time due to fuel-cell depletion. The device is programmed to compensate by using the infrared value to compute the electrochemical result. King recommended that the device be calibrated for accuracy and its fuel cell replaced, if necessary, every six months–twice as often as the annual tune-up he originally suggested.

It will be interesting to see how the Court finally rules on this crucial issue in New Jersey DWI law.