Is the breathalyzer racist?

So claims one Connecticut lawyer, James O. Ruane, son of the famous DUI attorney James J. Ruane. In this most recent DUI case, the younger Ruane filed a motion to suppress the results of the breathalyzer, arguing inter alia:

the lung capacity of a black man is 3 percent smaller than a white man and, therefore, black men’s test results vary from the sobriety standard set by the device.

He said Dr. Michael Hlastala, a lung physiologist at the University of Washington, examined research of other lung physiologists and, based on his studies, has determined the Intoxilyzer 5000 does not effectively test the blood-alcohol content of black men.

“He looked at all the research and came up with the bigger picture and found the common thread,” he said.

Ruane said he intends to have Hlastala testify on Brown’s behalf.

Never one to shy away from a soundbite, he then said this:

“They are KKK in a box,” said lawyer James O. Ruane of Shelton. “We really have some racist machines here.”

The Ruane’s have a fantastic reputation for being zealous advocates for their clients and are the go-to resources for DUI law in CT, so I figured there must be something more to this than just a lawyer clutching at straws. Sure enough, in the comments to the news article, Attorney Ruane the younger explains (after the jump):

This motion was one of a series of motions we filed in regards to the potential evidence in the case. The medical research is clear, the Intoxilyzer will overstate the breath alcohol level in certain persons (African Americans and women). I did not conduct the research, I only learned of it last year in another case.

When you combine the biases of the machine for the racial factor, the lung capacity, the conversion from a breath sample to a blood reading, and take into account a person’s natural partition ratio, you can see a possible breath test reading of a person at 0.08 that may actually be as low as .03.

That is a significant overstatement in the results. As you get further away from the standard, the overstatement grows larger in number. The machine treats every person the same, and that may cause it to discriminate against certain segments of the population. In this case, the purported results as mentioned in the article do not match the physical evidence. This was why we started looking for other explanations.

I haven’t read the studies and I don’t intend to, so I’ll take him at his word for now. I’ll follow this case with some interest, though.

From someone who knows nothing about DUI law, but a little about the internet, allow me to give you this piece of advice:

Stay away from the comments on these news sites.

4 thoughts on “Is the breathalyzer racist?

  1. Pingback: Breathalyzer readings are racist

    1. Gideon Post author

      That’s what I intended to do initially. I obviously hit the wrong button. Thanks for pointing it out, I probably wouldn’t have noticed till later.


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