Long Beach police officers have been using a faulty breath test device for more than a month. A technician found the device to be unreliable early in May when it showed an alert for a bad fuel cell. After clearing the error alert, the device still did not provide a proper baseline level when air blanks were processed through it. Police removed it from service, but it was left in a central storage area by mistake, where officers could pick it up and use it in the field without seeing that it was malfunctioning. The faulty breath test device was used in two roadside investigations before the department realized that it should have been removed from circulation.
Since the mistake, the department has adjusted their process for retiring breath test devices. “It was just simply that, a mistake,” said Long Beach Police Deputy Chief, Rich Conant. “And based on that mistake, some issues in our process were identified, and we’ve made corrective actions toward that. So we don’t expect to see that again.” Now, when a screening device similar to the breath test device is removed from service, officers will put a piece of tape on it to seal it closed and signal to officers that it should not be used.
According to the Long Beach Police Department, technicians test these PAS (preliminary alcohol screening) devices every 30 days for accuracy, a policy which follows manufacturer guidelines. In comparison, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department tests PAS devices every 10 days, or after they’ve been used 150 times. Since these devices are typically used by officers to establish probable cause of a DUI arrest and normally do not constitute evidence in court, there’s no law that requires how often police must test them for accuracy. However, for blood-alcohol tests used as scientific evidence in court, state law dictates that test devices be calibrated every 10 days.
The faulty breath test device was used in two cases, but the Long Beach Police Department has stated they don’t believe either case would have had a different outcome if the screening device were properly functioning.
The first case on June 2 involved the arrest of a 22-year-old Carson female driver, who registered a blood-alcohol level of 0.15% on the PAS device at the scene. According to protocol, the officers did follow-up blood-alcohol tests 40 minutes later after she went into custody, where the device read a 0.12% and then 0.11%. The suspect pled guilty, and her attorney stated that despite the faulty device, a functional one wouldn’t have changed the outcome of her case.
The second case on June 3 was high profile—Long Beach Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce was pulled over on the 710 Freeway late at night. Devin Cotter, Pearce’s former chief of staff, was a passenger in the vehicle. Pearce had a breath test reading of 0.06% and demonstrated what the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office called “mild impairment” during a field sobriety test. Cotter, the passenger, accused Pearce of domestic violence, but arresting officers concluded that there was insufficient evidence for Pearce’s arrest. Prosecutors decided not to file charges against Pearce, since Cotter and Pearce provided contradictory statements. Officers believe that Pearce may have shoved Cotter to the ground in self-defense. The lack of charges against Pearce caused complaints about officers giving Pearce preferential treatment. An internal investigation was launched regarding these allegations, in which the officers were ultimately cleared. However, the investigation did discover the faulty breath device used by Pearce.
As a result, the Long Beach Police Department has corrected their process for retiring breath test devices, hopefully reducing unlawful DUI arrests and convictions.