Friday, April 06, 2007

Top court to rule on New Jersey DWI test

North Jersey Media Group providing local news, sports & classifieds for Northern New Jersey! The state's highest court will determine the reliability of a new machine that many police departments in New Jersey are using to test a driver's blood-alcohol content. For police officers, the Alcotest is the latest technology to combat drunken driving. But for defense attorneys, innocent people could be convicted if it's not accurate. document.write(''); "The instrument has potential," said defense attorney Samuel Sachs, "but unless we can verify it, we can't trust it." Sachs and other defense attorneys who represent clients accused of drunken driving told the state Supreme Court in Trenton on Thursday that they want to perform their own tests before deciding the Alcotest's accuracy. But lawyers for the state Attorney General's Office argued that enough tests have been done to determine the machine is reliable. They said all police departments in New Jersey should be equipped with the latest and best technology. Fast facts Breathalyzer: A meter measures alcohol in the breath. Courts have held it's accurate, but authorities say there can be errors, mostly with how police interpret the test. Used in Bergen, Passaic, Hudson, Essex and Monmouth counties. Alcotest: Shoots a beam of infrared light through a breath sample and prints out a paper showing a driver's blood-alcohol level. Proponents say there's no room for human error, but reliability is being debated. Used in 17 counties, including Passaic, where both devices are deployed. "Everything has been put on the table," said Assistant Attorney General Boris Moczula, adding that the state is confident the Alcotest is "100 percent reliable." The ruling is important to police departments in Bergen, Hudson and Passaic counties, which have been waiting for the case to make its way through the justice system before acquiring the Alcotest. The justices gave no indication of when they would issue a ruling. While police departments in 17 counties are equipped with the Alcotest, North Jersey police have had to rely on the Breathalyzer, a 50-year-old machine that is no longer being manufactured. The holdup has put law enforcement agencies in a pinch because they've been forced to use technology that has been phased out elsewhere. Making matters worse, some departments were running dangerously low on ampules, glass containers filled with chemicals that are needed to get readings from the Breathalyzer. The company that made the ampules, Draeger Safety Diagnostics, stopped producing them, and said it would only make more batches if police departments came up with $500,000 to cover manufacturing costs. But chiefs in Bergen County did more research and eventually found a Canadian company that still made them. Because the ampules were being shipped from outside of the country, they first had to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration. "We're OK now, and we still have our Breathalyzers in service," said Ramsey Police Chief Brian Gurney. New Milford Police Chief Frank Papapietro said now that there has been a temporary fix to the problem, departments are trying to figure out how to move forward. "We're just waiting to hear back from Trenton," Papapietro said. "Hopefully, this will all be behind us soon." Some police chiefs said that even though they found a company that sells the ampules -- and even if the court approves the Alcotest -- more needs to be done to solve their DWI testing problems. "We're not out of the woods yet," said Washington Township Police Chief William Cicchetti, who is also president of the New Jersey Traffic Officers Association. "We still have to be trained on the Alcotest, and that hasn't started. It's not as if we get the machines and just start testing people -- we have to be prepared." Sachs, the defense attorney, said he's willing to be patient because the fate of potentially innocent clients hangs in the balance. Falsely accusing someone of DWI has a "devastating effect on the rest of their lives," Sachs said after the hearing. He said trusting the manufacturer or lawyers for the state on the Alcotest's reliability isn't good enough. " 'Trust me' is not good enough for the state of New Jersey," he said. "Not when it's trial by machine."

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