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State misconduct puts 27,000 drunken driving convictions at risk, Mass. high court rules

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The seven justices’ chairs at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The seven justices’ chairs at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Massachusetts highest court has issued a ruling that says problems in a state forensic testing lab could result in the dismissal of tens of thousands drunken driving cases.

The state Supreme Judicial Court ruled Wednesday that because of government misconduct surrounding breathalyzer testing, an estimated 27,000 people can seek to have their drunken driving charges dismissed.

The ruling, written by justice Frank Gaziano said the state Office for Alcohol Testing, which oversees breathalyzer testing machines, covered up the extent of machines' problems, which "resulted in the violation of the right to due process for approximately 27,000 defendants."

"Accordingly, defendants who pleaded guilty or who were convicted after trial, and the evidence against whom included breath test results from the Alcotest 9510 device from June 1, 2011, through April 18, 2019, are entitled to a conclusive presumption of egregious government misconduct," Gaziano wrote. His ruling said the defendants may seek to withdraw guilty pleas or seek new trials "without having to establish egregious government misconduct."

The ruling involved the case of Lindsay Hallinan, who pleaded to sufficient facts in a 2013 drunken driving case. After Hallinan's plea, it was discovered that some breathalyzer testing machines — which estimate a person's blood alcohol content — had not been routinely calibrated to ensure their accuracy. That revelation led to litigation and an investigation by the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. The investigation found that the OAT covered up the problems and had claimed that the failure rate of the machines was much lower than it actually is.

Wednesday's ruling said the scathing investigation showed the coverup of the breathalyzer machine problems "undermined the criminal justice system in the Commonwealth, compromised thousands of prosecutions for OUI offenses, and potentially resulted in inaccurate convictions."

Hallinan's attorneys argued that she would not have been encouraged to plead to sufficient facts, and be sentenced to probation and a two year loss of her driver's license, had they known about the problems with the machines and the OAT.

Wednesday's ruling also said Hallinan should be allowed to seek a withdrawal of her plea to sufficient facts.

"It's a good day for justice in Massachusetts," said Murat Erkan, Hallinan's attorney. "We can feel some gratitude that we have a system in place where we have objective and courageous judges who are willing to sort of correct these wrongs when they occur."

Erkan said the ruling provides guidance to judges on how to handle cases involving the machine, whose tests have been the subject of legal challenges for almost a decade. Hallinan, he said, will now ask the court to dismiss the charges against her.

When the court heard arguments in December, attorneys for the state argued that the OAT had taken steps to correct the problems and not all tests were affected, so prosecutors could identify a problem machine to determine if evidence had been tested properly.

Erkan and other defense attorneys compared the breathalyzer testing problems to the state drug lab scandals where two former chemists at two different state labs were convicted of misconduct that resulted in the SJC dismissing tens of thousands of criminal drug cases.

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"Once again, the Supreme Judicial Court has been forced to tackle a scandal raising serious doubts about the reliability of forensic evidence and the government’s failure to disclose invaluable, exculpatory evidence to defendants," said Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel of the state's public defender agency, the Committee for Public Counsel Services.  "Much like in the drug lab cases that came before, the court has wisely granted relief to all defendants impacted."

The Massachusetts State police said they are reviewing the court ruling, adding that because of various improvements, the breathalyzer machines now in use are working properly.

"The Office of Alcohol Testing in recent years has implemented significant operational improvements to ensure that breathalyzer certification, case management, discovery processes and employee training are in accordance with all applicable laws and established forensic best practices," said State Police spokesman David Procopio.

Plymouth County District Attorney Tim Cruz, who is president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, said his office is reviewing motions for new trials and will continue to do so.

This article was originally published on April 26, 2023.

This segment aired on April 27, 2023.

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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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