Do Crime Labs Make Errors in DUI Cases?

When people are arrested for driving under the influence in California, they have to submit to a breath or blood test to determine their blood alcohol concentration (BAC). Generally, blood tests are considered to be more “reliable” and less open to questioning; however, that doesn’t mean blood tests are foolproof because they’re not.

“Can a crime lab make an error with a blood test?” Absolutely. In the past, crime labs have made errors in the collection, testing and storage of suspects’ blood. Blood may not be taken correctly. It can be contaminated. And it can be compromised if it’s not stored in strict accordance with standard procedures.

On November 21, 2013, the Orange County Crime Lab announced more errors with their blood-alcohol tests. It wasn't but a few weeks earlier that the lab first announced a calibration error that had been allowed to persist for about five months. This oversight led to an error of .001 percent, enough to affect about 100 cases according to the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

After the first error was discovered, the lab immediately launched an internal audit of all tests, procedures and calibration for up to five years prior. It was this audit that revealed the second calibration error, which occurred in December 2012. The California Department of Health then stepped in to perform a complete audit of the crime lab and its procedures to see if there were any additional undiscovered errors.

A .001 percent margin of error may not seem like much, but it is actually enough to raise a .07 BAC to a .08 percent, which could warrant a DUI charge. After hitting .08 percent BAC, the legal intoxication limit, penalties can become even tougher at two blood alcohol thresholds, .15 and .20. The error could lead to the re-opened DUI cases either being dismissed or reduced.

The DA's office sent out letters explaining the situation to about 900 people whose cases may have been affected by the first error. The DA estimated that over 20 percent of those people may see their BAC test results drop a percentage point, and even more in light of the later discovered errors.

Attorney Virginia Landry was quoted in an article that ran in the OC Register, calling this information "disturbing."

"We have to have trust in science. If you can't trust science, and you can't trust the scientists, then the whole system breaks down," stated Attorney Landry.

Attorney Landry and other DUI defense attorneys like her believe that these types of errors could cause juries to lose faith in the blood alcohol testing system. If these types of tests are not reliable, there is little solid evidence to base DUI convictions on.

View the OC Register article "More DUI Test Errors Found at County Lab"

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