NJ: Alcotest reliable, report affirms
While state justices review the latest findings, many convicted drunk drivers may remain on the road.
The report, released yesterday, says the new Alcotest breath-testing machine is "much more reliable" and "much more precise" than the decades-old Breathalyzer machine it replaced.
The Supreme Court scheduled a Jan. 7 hearing on the report. Lawyers said the court could issue a decision as early as February, which might allow as many as 40,000 convicted drunk drivers to begin their punishments.
Sentencing for first-time drunk drivers has been postponed since the Supreme Court-ordered study of the Alcotest began in January 2006.
Cherry Hill lawyer Jeffrey Gold, who represented the New Jersey Bar Association as a friend of the court in the Alcotest case, called the vast number of postponed sentences "ridiculous."
"There are people who should have lost their licenses, but are still driving," he said.
One was Linda Bianchi, a 45-year-old Marlton woman who was convicted of drunken driving in August. Two months later, she crashed into a car driven by Rebecca Haines, 24, in Williamstown, killing the Navy veteran from Mount Laurel. Bianchi was legally drunk at the time, prosecutors say.
Defense lawyers have challenged the Alcotest's reliability since it appeared in New Jersey in 2001. The Supreme Court took over the case two years ago and appointed retired appellate judge Michael Patrick King special master to study the Alcotest.
King's 108-page report yesterday said the Alcotest was more accurate than the Breathalyzer and not subject to operator influence. King noted minor defects in the Alcotest computer program, but they "did not change our opinion on the reliability and trustworthyness of the instrument but reinforced our initial view."
A 268-page report that King issued in February said the Alcotest is reliable if each machine is equipped with a breath-temperature sensor and is tested every six months.
Shortly after that report, five defense lawyers argued that faults in the Alcotest computer program could cause wrong test results.
The Supreme Court's Alcotest decision will be closely watched. The device is used in dozens of states, including Florida, Arizona, Minnesota, and parts of Pennsylvania. It is used by police in 17 of New Jersey's 21 counties, including all of South Jersey.
"New Jersey is the first state to have hearings about the reliability of the code," lawyer Gold said.
The five lawyers who challenged the Alcotest vowed to continue their fight.
Cherry Hill lawyer Evan M. Levow said the state Attorney General's Office had spent $7 million to buy Alcotest machines - the most expensive breath-test machines on the market. The Alcotest 7110 used in New Jersey is no longer made, he said.
He called the special master's report "a political determination that saves face for the Attorney General's Office and the courts."
Spokesman Peter Aseltine said the office was pleased with the special master's "reaffirmation of the Alcotest instrument's scientific reliability in terms of both its hardware and software components" and looked forward to the Supreme Court's decision.