The Minnesota Supreme Court this week handed down an important decision affecting the lives of thousands of Minnesotans accused of drunk driving. The Court released its opinion this Wednesday in the case concerning problems with the source code that operates the Intoxilyzer 5000EN, the device used by police departments across the state to check blood alcohol levels.
In a 4-3 decision, the high court upheld a lower court’s opinion and ruled that while the source code of the device may contain errors, the device itself is sufficiently reliable. The Court said that the lower court did not abuse its discretion when it denied defendants’ motions to exclude any and all results that were the product of the Intoxilyzer 5000EN from their DUI trials. The justices decided that the state successfully demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that the device is reliable and unaffected by supposed source code issues. As a result, the Court said defense attorneys are prevented from raising the issue of source code problems with juries, thus gutting the challenge many defendants hoped to raise.
The battle was one that stretched on in the state for nearly six years, with the first suit filed in 2006 after one suspected drunk driver sought the code used in the device to see if the results in his case were reliable. Many years of litigation followed and the code was eventually released, resulting in thousands of challenges across the state. Defense attorneys across Minnesota sued, claiming that the source code behind the Intoxilyzer 5000EN was out of date and problematic, producing skewed results that couldn’t be trusted. Upwards of 4,000 cases were put on hold as the Supreme Court weighed in on the issue, all of whom will now return to the county courts where they began.
The decision was split and Justice Page led a group of three dissenting judges who argued that by barring source code evidence from trial, defendants would never be given a true opportunity to challenge the credibility of Intoxilyzer results. Page said that in criminal cases all relevant evidence should be admitted to give both sides the opportunity to put on their strongest case. By prohibiting juries from hearing about source code problems, the Supreme Court has hampered the ability of defendants to introduce potentially probative evidence.
All this appears to have been for nothing given that by the end of the summer law enforcement agencies across Minnesota will begin phasing out the Intoxilyzer in favor of a new device, the DataMaster DMT-G. Early reports indicate one problem may simply have been traded for another, as there are indications the DataMaster also has encountered glitches that may affect its reliability. The device takes two approaches to reading a person’s BAC, one similar to the Intoxilyzer, and the other, what’s known as a dry-gas method. There have been problems of reliability with the dry-gas method but officials say any issues with the one approach do not impact the accuracy of the other.
To read the full opinion, click here.