San Francisco police have suspended their use of devices that measure suspected drunken drivers’ blood-alcohol level in the field after it was revealed they haven’t been properly testing their accuracy, possibly for years.
At a joint news conference Monday, Public Defender Jeff Adachi and District Attorney George Gascón said they are investigating police testing of Preliminary Alcohol Screening devices, which manufacturers recommend on a regular basis.
Adachi said his office may attempt to dismiss certain DUI convictions. He said police records showed the practice “probably went back at least to 2006,” and that his office handles hundreds of such cases each year. Although many convicted drunk drivers have already served their sentences, they may still be experiencing “collateral consequences” such as higher insurance rates, or their use as a prior conviction in other criminal cases.
“Many people, I would imagine, would be interested in seeking relief,” Adachi said.
It’s just the latest embarrassment to emerge in recent years involving the handling of evidence by San Francisco police. In 2010, revelations that a department criminalist was pilfering drug evidence led to the dismissal of hundreds of drug cases. And in 2011, more than 100 more drug cases were dismissed after Adachi’s office discovered videos allegedly depicting officers illegally entering residences and falsifying police reports and stealing suspects’ valuables.
Gascón stressed that PAS testing was only one potential piece of evidence, and that 98 percent of DUI cases involve blood or breathalyzer tests done later.
“Most of those cases, we’re going to have ample evidence to continue to support what was determined earlier on in that case,” Gascón said. He said that his office would dismiss cases where PAS evidence was found to be central.
Christopher Shea, an attorney who handles DUI cases, said none of his clients would probably be affected because their convictions were proven by subsequent tests. But, he added, “any time that the evidence that the police are collecting is called into question, it’s an issue that needs to be taken seriously.”
PAS devices are one of several methods police use to determine probable cause to make a DUI arrest. The department has a limited number of the devices, and officers can choose whether or not to use them.
Device recalibration, which is supposed to happen every 10 days or 150 uses, involves comparing a sample with a reading on the device to make sure it is recording blood-alcohol content accurately.
Gascón, the former police chief, said the irregularities pointed to “negligence, as opposed to malice” on the part of the police. His office is no longer using evidence from PAS devices in DUI cases and is reviewing such cases over the last decade.
Police officials acknowledged that the department had not been testing the devices.
“The Department is cooperating with the investigation, so that this does not happen again,” spokesman Officer Albie Esparza said. Esparza said he was unaware if any officers had been disciplined, and that DUI arrests would continue.
The DUI testing allegations are just the latest embarrassing revelation involving the handling of evidence by San Francisco police officers.
2010 — Department criminalist Deborah Madden pilfered drug evidence, leading to the dismissal of hundreds of drug cases.
2011 — More than 100 more cases were dismissed after videos allegedly depicted officers illegally entering residences, falsifying police reports, and stealing suspects’ valuables during drug arrests.
2012 — Revelations that police may not have checked the accuracy of their mobile breathalyzers for years.