Thousands with OUI convictions to be offered new trials over unreliable breath tests

Staff Writer
Published: 2/9/2021 3:11:14 PM
Modified: 2/9/2021 3:11:12 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Thousands of people in Hampshire and Franklin counties who were convicted of drunken driving between 2011 and 2018 may soon be eligible for a second trial due to unreliable breath test results, the office of the Northwestern district attorney announced Monday.

The office will send out letters to 3,100 residents of the two counties this week notifying them of their right to challenge a conviction for operating under the influence (OUI) from this period. Statewide, an estimated 27,000 people will receive notices.

Massachusetts District Court Judge Robert Brennan determined in 2017 that blood alcohol content test devices enacted by the state’s Office of Alcohol Testing from 2011-14 did not produce scientifically reliable results, making these tests inadmissible in court. In 2019, Brennan determined that the Office of Alcohol Testing had intentionally withheld information from attorneys showing that more than 400 breath-testing devices were improperly calibrated, which made all Breathalyzer results from 2011 onwards inadmissible in court.

The District Court placed a moratorium on using Breathalyzer results as evidence until their results could be proven scientifically reliable. Later in 2019, the Office of Alcohol Testing gained accreditation for the first time, after which new Breathalyzer tests could once again be used as evidence in court.

Attorney Joseph Bernard, who has offices in Belchertown and Springfield, was the lead defense counsel for the case that challenged breathalyzer results, Commonwealth v. Ananias.

According to Bernard, the decision “is going to help thousands of people maybe get their lives back together,” he said. “There are people who lost their licenses, can’t drive still, lost their jobs. Some people have gone to jail for this.”

For those who were falsely convicted, the justice system “can’t give them back their life,” Bernard said, but “can do their very best to remedy the situation, and that, I think, is what the justice system has done.”

He is also pleased to see that the Office of Alcohol Testing “not only made a lot of changes, but what they’ve done is accepted responsibility … and they’ve been transparent with all of their remedial measures.”

The ruling covers defendants who were tried and found guilty; defendants who pleaded guilty to resolve their cases; and defendants whose cases were continued without a finding, then dismissed after a short probation.

If an eligible defendant challenges a past conviction and is granted a new trial, the state would need to prove their guilt with evidence that does not include the Breathalyzer result.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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