Massachusetts

Misconduct Taints 27,000 Mass. Criminal Cases Involving Breath Tests, Court Rules

The Supreme Judicial Court's ruling referred to misconduct uncovered in the Annie Dookhan case, a major drug testing scandal that has rocked the state crime lab for years

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Citing "extensive" misconduct at the Massachusetts State Police Office of Alcohol Testing, the state's top court is allowing about 27,000 people to appeal for new trials if criminal cases against them involved a particular kind of breathalyzer device.

Wednesday's ruling applies to people who had breath tests taken with the Alcotest 9510 between June 1, 2011, and April 18, 2019, the Supreme Judicial Court said. The ruling didn't go as far as reversing all roughly 27,000 guilty pleas and convictions, but it's another mark on the record of the state's crime lab, where the Office of Alcohol Testing, or OAT, is based.

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"The extensive nature of OAT's misconduct, and the inability of the defendants in the consolidated cases challenging the reliability of the Alcotest 9510 device … have resulted in the violation of the right to due process for approximately 27,000 defendants," Justice Frank Gaziano wrote for the court.

A spokesman for the Massachusetts State Police said Thursday the agency was reviewing the impact of the decision.

"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. It is important to note that the OAT operating procedures described in yesterday’s decision predate those numerous and substantial reforms," spokesman Dave Procopio said in a statement.

Many of the state's district attorneys told NBC10 Boston they were already working to accommodate requests for new trials that involved the breathalyzer devices in question.

The case stems from Lindsay Hallinan's 2013 guilty plea to drunken driving after an Alcotest 9510 test found she had a blood alcohol level of 0.23%. She pleaded guilty, the court said, because her lawyer told her the case couldn't be won.

But she later moved to rescind her guilty plea after the tests were found to be unreliable and allegations that the Office of Alcohol Testing had a history of misconduct were uncovered in a state report that Gaziano wrote "highlights OAT's disturbing pattern of intentionally withholding exculpatory evidence year after year, dating back at least as early as June 2011."

Defendants who were accused of crime through breath tests didn't have access to information they could have used to challenge the findings, the justice wrote.

"The broad scope and nature of these violations of court orders undermined the criminal justice system in the Commonwealth, compromised thousands of prosecutions for OUI offenses, and potentially resulted in inaccurate convictions," Gaziano wrote, adding, "the conclusion that OAT's behavior was egregiously impermissible is 'inescapable.'"

The ruling referred to misconduct uncovered in the Annie Dookhan case, a major drug testing scandal that has rocked the state crime lab for years.

The district attorneys for Norfolk, Worcester and Middlesex counties told NBC10 Boston that they had reached out to defendants whose cases may have been affected as cases involving the breath tests worked their way through the legal system.

A spokesman for the Essex County District Attorney's Office said it will abide by the court's ruling: "We stand ready to address any motions for new trial that are filed and, where appropriate, to agree to the grant of new trials or dismissals."

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