Scottsdale Crime Lab: The Supreme Court's Statement of Issues

Today at 11:00 a.m. the Arizona Supreme Court will hear oral arguments regarding whether to reinstate a trial court's finding that - blood alcohol measurements created by the Scottsdale Crime Lab are unreliable.  You can read a history of this litigation by clicking here.

A case being selected by the Supreme Court for review is a rare event.  Simple math shows it is unlikely that any particular case will be reviewed by the Arizona Supreme Court.   The Court receives a substantial amount of “Petitions” to review lower court decisions, but it only selects a small percentage of them each year.  However, because the issues in this case (it is actually a consolidation of 11 cases) will have wide-ranging consequences, it was an ideal case for the Court to review.  The final ruling by the Court, regardless of who prevails, will likely affect how scientific evidence will be handled by Arizona courts for years to come.

While both parties have their own opinions as to what the key issues are, the Court will provide a summary and statement of the issues from their perspective prior to the oral argument.  Last week, as expected, the Court issued its written statement.  Below are the issues as stated in the Court’s summary:

 

1. Did the Court err by holding that Rule 702(d) challenges are excluded from judicial gatekeeping scrutiny under Arizona law?

 

2. Did the Court err in using the accuracy of the results as the criteria for a gatekeeping analysis instead of using the trustworthiness of the methodology used to generate the results?

 

3. Did the Court err in substituting its own judgment for the trial court’s without finding that the trial court’s decision constituted an abuse of discretion?

 

After reading this statement of the issues, one could jump to a conclusion from the way the issues are framed, that the Court is leaning in a particular the direction.  A word of caution – no one knows how the court is leaning.  The Court’s final opinion could easily list a different set of issues.

Today’s oral argument is being held at Arizona State University Law School.  The argument is open to the public and starts promptly at 11:00 am.  Everyone is welcome to attend – regardless of which side of the argument you are on.

The Scottsdale Crime Lab cases will be reviewed by the Arizona Supreme Court

The Arizona Supreme Court has decided to review the Court of Appeals' (COA) ruling regarding whether Scottsdale DUI results can be trusted.  

Our ongoing legal battle over the defective software used by the Scottsdale Crime Lab (SCL) to measure BAC levels begins its final stage.  The Supreme Court granted our request to review the COA's decision permitting prosecutors to rely upon the measurements generated by this software as a basis for a DUI conviction. 

 

WHAT HAPPENED?

Over three years ago a few chromatograms (a graphical representation of a blood alcohol measurement) escaped the Scottsdale crime lab (SCL).  It was something we had never seen before. The floodgates of evidence showing forensic malpractice soon opened.  

We learned, that for several years, the SCL had known of serious defects in the software used to measure BACs.  These malfunctions include assigning an incorrect result with the incorrect person (i.e. John gets Fred's result).  No one in the lab had the expertise to explain why this was occurring, or how to "fix" it.  According to an internal email we obtained from the SCL, they "buried" this from the rest of us.

Even after the defense brought this to light, the Prosecution continued to prosecute the public using this unreliable software.  The penalties for those convicted include mandatorily incarceration and significant monetary fines (a portion of which the crime lab receives).  They are currently still using these defective measurements to incarcerate people.

 

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

There were two primary venues for these debates: 

 

(1) Superior Court; and 

 

(2) Scottsdale City Court.  

 

The Superior Court (felony cases) is where these rulings originated.  The City of Scottsdale courts took a different approach.  That story will be addressed in a separate post.  In the Superior Court, the main case is State v. Herman (on appeal titled In Re Bernstein).  There were two challenges in "Herman" that ended up in the COA.  

 

Herman #1 (Re: Discovery) 

Because we only had access to the initial documents that appear to have been allowed out of the SCL by accident, we did not know the scope of the problem.  

We convinced two Superior Court Commissioners to hold a joint hearing.  They agreed with our arguments and issued an order to produce all chromatograms from 2011.  The Court also gave the Lab almost two months to provide them.  The deadline came and went.  The SCL admitted they did not even attempt to comply with the order.

We filed a Motion for Contempt.  The prosecution filed a Special Action asking the COA to reverse the order.  The morning before the contempt hearing, the COA stayed everything.   A few months later...

  • Result - COA reversed 

We did not get the data.  Today, the scope of the malfunctions still remains unknown. 

 

Herman #2 (Re: Reliability) 

After the COA's ruling, we requested a Daubert (reliability) hearing with the trial court.  This would be Arizona's first substantive Daubert hearing (fortunately, the evidence Rules changed in 2012 to permit such a hearing).   Combined, it lasted almost nine (9) months.  To our surprise, we ended up getting material information in the Daubert hearing (Herman #2) that we did not even think to request in Herman #1. 

At the same time, the Arizona Republic started to investigate our claims.  Through their public records requests (and later our own) a treasure trove of damming evidence was obtained.  

At the hearing, SCL personnel were testifying they understood the issues and put forth an “all was well” message.  However, in contrast to their testimony, the Arizona Republic obtained internal emails, that told a much different story than “all is well.”  Their "private" communications showed the court that the SCL personnel testifying, were less than forthcoming about the severity of the problems and their ability to comprehend them.

The combination of SLC personnel’s tainted testimony, and the testimony our forensic experts (including an independent forensic toxicologist, a certified quality assurance lab auditor, a and forensic software engineer), presented a powerful case that the SCL’s measurements and supporting testimony were not trustworthy. 

 

Arizona Court of Appeals 

As in Herman #1, the prosecution turned to the court of appeals for relief. 

Again, as in Herman #1, it was provided.  

  • Result - COA Reversed.

 

Arizona Supreme Court

Over a year ago, we filed a Petition with the Arizona Supreme Court requesting that they: 

 

(1) review the court of appeals decision; 

 

(2) and reinstate the trial court's ruling.

 

A few weeks ago, the Arizona Supreme Court decided to review the matter.

 

WHAT'S NEXT.

The Court's decision merely means they granted part one of our request: they will hear the case. They have set oral argument on February 17, 2015 at 11:00 am.  It will be a road game for the Court, as it will be held at ASU Law School.  The oral argument is open to the public, but it is expected to be a full house.  If you want to attend, get there early.

 

Lawrence Koplow

You have a bandwidth problem

An analyst from a crime lab testifies that a defendant, who is charged with DUI, has a blood alcohol concentration of .120.  Despite the legal requirements that the state must prove the test is trustworthy, most jurors have made a blink judgement the that test is correct.  As is often the case, the appearance of science is a powerful tool of persuasion.  This is true  even when the opinion is based upon junk science.
 
Here, despite the claims of the analyst and unbeknownst to the jury, the test result was done using unreliable equipment relying on defective software.  Your challenge: undo the jury's initial judgments, demonstrate the analyst is too biased and lacking the qualifications to understand the severity of the equipment's defects, and show the result can't be trusted.  This is no small task.
 
This task will take time.  It requires a thorough understanding of the many underlying scientific disciplines involved.  Adequately educating the jury will require information from several different sources.  Each piece of evidence will present a different evidentiary challenge.  In short, beyond the inherent difficulties of such cases, you also have a bandwidth problem.
 
Bandwidth is the amount of data that can be transmitted in a fixed amount of time.  DUI trials have time and evidentiary limitations.  There are not intended to be semester long science classes.  There are practical realities inhibiting you from properly educating a jury with the knowledge they need to debunk these unsound claims.  If left unaddressed, a court may not even recognize this bandwidth dilemma.
 
Consider the problem in the following terms.  A presentation that does not reach the audience persuades no one.  If Netflix creates next years best new drama, but there is not enough bandwidth to stream it, then what was the point of creating it.  No one pays a subscription fee to see a "buffering" message.  Quality is meaningless without bandwidth.
 
Being right is does not convince a jury without an adequate opportunity to present it to a jury.   In these cases, you don't have a right or wrong problem - you have a bandwidth problem.  Accordingly, neglecting the bandwidth argument can be fatal.  If you don't sufficiently address this issue, then no one may hear how right you are.

How did you get that number?

If you are making a decision based upon a measurement, then you have two choices.

 

One, you can simply accept any number a machine produces as true; or

 

Two, you can ask “how did you get that number?”

 

The choice you make should be based upon how important the decision is that  you’re basing the measurement upon.  If you just want to know how hot it is outside, a twenty-year-old thermometer, combined with stepping outside will probably do.  However, if the measurement is critical to an important outcome, then you need to ask, and answer, the question how did you get the number?

 

A critical measurement is a measurement where, the result of an important analysis, is dependent upon the measurement. A measurement is critical if an incorrect measurement could place people in danger.  If a scientist measured the wrong amount of a drug when making a pill, then it could harm someone – that is a critical measurement. 

 

If a lab employee measures the wrong amount of alcohol in your system in a DUI case, then it could result in an unwarranted prison sentence – that is also a critical measurement.  

 

Related Posts

 

What warrants a warrant?

After the Supreme Court decided the case of Missouri v. McNeely, the question of when a warrant is required, before law enforcement may draw a person's blood became more interesting to say the least.  On one side of the issue was the position that a blood alcohol concentrations is constantly changing, thus, there is a justification for law enforcement to bypass the traditional warrant requirement.

The contrary, and as it turns out the prevailing position, is that our Constitution does not allow law enforcement unfettered discretion to decided if they can stick a needle in your arm without a warrant (i.e. probable cause presented to a judge who issues a warrant).  The reality of modern technology is that a telephonic warrant can be obtained in about 15 minutes for most cases.  Accordingly, the exigent circumstances reasoning for bypassing the warrant requirement is unsound.  As the U.S. Supreme Court stated in their rejection of such a per se rule in DUI cases:

But it does not follow that we should depart from careful case-by-case assessment of exigency and adopt the categorical rule proposed by the State and its amici.  In those drunk-driving investigations where police officers can reasonably obtain a warrant before a blood sample can be drawn without significantly undermining the efficacy of the search, the Fourth Amendment mandates that they do so. See McDonald v. United States, 335 U.S. 451, 456, 69 S.Ct. 191, 93 L.Ed 153 (1948).

Missouri v. McNeely, 133 S.Ct. at 1555 (2013).

Is it really so surprising that what warrants a warrant is what is reasonable under the circumstances?

The anatomy of a gas chromatograph

 

The results produced by a gas chromatograph are usually the difference between innocence and guilt in a DUI case.  The prosecution’s purported blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is typically the “end-all be-all” of their case. Let’s take a look at how this machine creates such a critical measurement.

Big Pictures Thoughts

  • If done properly, gas chromatography is a reliable way to measure the amount of blood in an alcohol sample.  However, automobiles are also reliable, but there are still thousands of car wrecks every day.  There is no presumption of reliability simply because a gas chromatograph was used.
  • The measurement process has both human components and machine components.  All steps in the process must be done correctly for the measurement to be trusted.
  • The goal of is to produce a measurement, which is both accurate and reliable.

General Principles

  • Gas chromatography is an indirect measurement.  The machine does not test liquid portion of a blood sample.  In headspace gas chromatography, the machine converts substances to a gas, and then it must separate the different types of molecules in the sample.  After separation, a microscopic amount of the gas is measured by software.
  • The machine must demonstrate it is able to separate different types of molecules before it can measure them.  If it cannot properly separate different categories of molecules, then its measurements may be artificially higher.
  • Gas chromatography is done in manner like a production line.  Multiple samples (usually over 100 vials) are being processed in a “batch.”  It is essential to safeguard against the wrong information being assigned to the wrong sample.

Vocabulary

  • Gas chromatograph - a machine that separates molecules, and then measures, the amount of the various components in a sample.
  • Gas Chromatography - the scientific process performed by a gas chromatograph.
  • Chromatogram – the graphical representation of the data produced by the gas chromatograph.  This is where you will find the final measurement.  A chromatogram is the machine’s conclusion.

The Human Part

The measurement process starts long before the gas chromatograph is actually turned on.  The blood must be collected, identified, stored and transferred properly before the sample is put into the gas chromatograph.  Even the best machines cannot account for, or identify, that a sample has been corrupted.  The principle of garbage in garbage out must be kept in mind.  That is, incorrect (or poor quality) input will always produce wrong output.  

Human are also responsible for teaching the machine a specific alcohol concentration.  The machine does not come out of the box knowing any specific alcohol concentration.  Typically a lab will purchase approximately four (4) different alcohol concentrations from a vendor.  For example, .01, .10, .20, .40 are often used to calibrate the machine. 

These samples are put into the machine and the analyst programs the machine’s software to use these values.  If the analyst tells the machine a sample is a .40 but it is really a .30, the machine cannot tell the difference.  Ensuring a calibrator is what it purports to be is known as traceability.

The Machine Part

The machine starts its analysis after a small portion (less than the size of the a single M&M) of each blood sample is put into a headspace vial. The headspace vials (usually over 100) containing the samples are loaded into a part of the machine called the autosampler.  

The samples are then heated (in a headspace tube) forcing molecules in the liquid portion of the sample to rise.  After the molecules are vaporized, a needle punctures the top of the headspace vial and extracts a microscopic portion of the gas above the liquid.

These vaporized molecules are pushed through long thin columns by a carrier gas (hydrogen or helium).  These thin columns have a chemical coating inside them designed to interact with the molecules passing through them.  The carrier gas moves at a constant pressure.  This results in different molecules in the gas to group together (e.g. ethanol with ethanol, methanol with methanol).  Each molecule group, such as ethanol, has a unique rate of speed.  This accounts for the separation of the each substance in the columns.

After each molecule group is pushed out of the column, they will be pushed to a detector.  The time when is substance exits the column is called the time it elutes.  The detector’s software has been programmed to identify different substances by the time they elute from the column.  The Flame Ionization Detector, as the name implies, then burns each molecule group and then measures how much is burned.

The software gathers the “raw data” and then processes it.  The “process data” is graphically represented in something called a chromatogram.    The measurement is found here.

The above summary just scratches the surface of the measurement process using a gas chromatograph.  If you are going to rely upon the measurement produced by this technique, then every step in process (both the human and machine) must be shown to have been done correctly.

The eyes have it

At the side of the road, law enforcement routinely makes DUI arrests based upon results of a Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test. The underlying premise of the test is: you drink enough alcohol, and then you eyes will show HGN.

Alcohol, however, is not the sole cause of HGN. In State v. Horn, the court recognized the following causes or possible causes of HGN:

  • problems with the inner ear labyrinth;
  • irrigating the ears with warm or cold water;
  • influenza; streptococcus infection;
  • vertigo;
  • measles;
  • syphilis;
  • arteriosclerosis;
  • Korchaff's syndrome;
  • brain hemorrhage;
  • epilepsy;
  • hypertension;
  • motion sickness;
  • sunstroke;
  • eye strain;
  • eye muscle fatigue;
  • glaucoma;
  • changes in atmospheric pressure;
  • consumption of excessive amounts of caffeine;
  • excessive exposure to nicotine; aspirin;
  • circadian rhythms;
  • acute head trauma;
  • chronic head trauma;
  • some prescription drugs; tranquilizers,
  • pain medication,
  • anti-convulsant medicine;
  • barbiturates;
  • disorders of the vestibular apparatus and brain stem;
  • cerebellum dysfunction;
  • heredity;
  • diet;
  • toxins;
  • exposure to solvents;
  • extreme chilling;
  • eye muscle imbalance;
  • lesions;
  • continuous movement of the visual field past the eyes; and
  • antihistamine use.

 

Read the "Warning Label" of your blood test

When should you trust a blood test result that claims to measures an alcohol concentration?  Start by reading the test's "Warning Label."  Here is an explanation on my legalcoffee blog.

A reported result versus a complete result

 

In DUI cases, a machine called a gas chromatograph is often used to measure an alcohol concentration in a blood sample.   The measurement, which the machine prints at the end of the process, is called a reported result.  We are finally at the point in Arizona, where courts are starting to recognize that merely providing a reported result is not sufficient evidence.  The law is coming to the same realization that science did many years ago: a reported result from a machine is an incomplete measurement.

A complete measurement includes more than just a reported result.  As a matter of fact, simply providing a reported result is often misleading.  A reported result is only complete when accompanied by a “statement of its uncertainty.” See NIST Technical Note 1297, 1994 Edition.  No measurement is perfect.  The result of any measurement is only an estimation of its value.  A “statement of uncertainty” is the range of doubt that exists regarding a measurement.

A complete test result, must also include:

  • a “Range of Uncertainty” and;
  • “Confidence Interval.” 

To illustrate, let’s assume that a blood test result was .100.  Let’s also assume, based on a review of the machine’s prior performance, a “range of uncertainty” was determined to be ± 5%, with a “confidence interval” of 100%.  This means, the reported result could be as low as a .095 and as high as a .105.  Moreover, this also means, if the same blood sample were repeatedly tested on this equipment, the result would only be outside of the ± 5% range 1 out of a million times.  If this statistic were true, this would certainty be a reported result that you could trust.

On the other hand, what if for the same reported result of .100 the range was ± 30%, with a confidence interval of 50%?  Here, this means the reported result could be as low as .070 or as high as .130.   Furthermore, if you continued to test this sample on the same equipment, 300,000 times of out of a million, the reported result would be outside the range stated above.

When comparing the two complete test results, you can see that providing a mere reported result does not tell us the whole story.    Merely telling us the reported result can actually tell us a very misleading story.  Science will not accept incomplete measurements.  Why should the law?

 

Scottsdale DUI Blood Tests Ruled Unreliable

In July of 2012, I asked a member of the Scottsdale Crime Lab for an interview about some rumors. She refused and told me to get a court order.  At that time I was surprised.  Why would she refuse to do a routine interview? 

 Today we know the answer. 

Today we now know that: (1) the Scottsdale Crime Lab’s blood testing equipment is unreliable; and (2) the testimony of the crime lab personnel is not trustworthy.  Don’t take my word for it – just read the court’s opinion by clicking here.

THE NEW ARIZONA DUI LAWS ARE HERE!

It's true - Arizona has reduced the penalties for DUI convictions.  Here are some of the highlights:

  • The interlock requirement has been reduced from 12 months to 6 months (for first time non-extreme DUI.)
  • The mandatory jail requirements have been modified / reduced.  There is a lot of legalese with this particular change.  I will do a detailed post on the specifics soon.  However, you should know the judges now have more discretion to reduced jail time for both extreme and non-extreme DUI convictions.
  • Home detention (an electronic ankle bracelet) will now be available in justice courts and the judges now have some more latitude to utilize these ankle bracelets instead of long jail sentences;
  • Certain driver's license suspensions now allow for restricted driving permits that previously did not;

There are a lot more changes in the new law.  The legislature, without a public debate, removed the statutory right to jury trial for non-extreme DUI cases.  However, all extreme DUI charges and all second DUI charges still have an automatic right to a jury trial.  There may still be a right to jury trial in regular DUI cases under Arizona's common law.  In any event, the jury trial has not disappeared - there will be a big legal fight to come on this issue.

I will be posting additional details on the new laws in the coming days.

Lawrence

Blood Testing Is About More Than A Machine

In DUI cases, an accurate blood test result requires more than just the blood tester to be working properly. A reliable test results requires more than than what the machine (the blood tester) provides.  As shown below, see the machine is just a fraction of the process need to obtain an accurate and reliable result.

Usually the government only puts safeguard in place to prevent machine errors.  Consequently the majority of the blood testing process will go unchecked and subject to human error.       

 

Interview with KTAR's Jay Lawrence

This past Sunday I was interviewed by local radio station KTAR's Jay Lawrence on a number of Arizona DUI issues, including:

  • current Arizona charges and penalties,
  • changing enforcement standards for DUI charges based on jurisdiction (Scottsdale, for example),
  • measurement and testing,
  • drug-based DUI charges - both legal prescription and illegal,
  • differing charges while a child is in a vehicle, and
  • timelines for resolution of DUI charges.

The entire interview, along with my answers to various phone-in questions, is now available as a downloadable podcast, starting at the 11:00 minute mark.

Many thanks to Jay Lawrence and KTAR for having me.

The Dirty Little Secret (of Arizona DUI First Offense)

Here is the math used in Arizona: INCREASED JAIL + DUI PROBLEM = REDUCED DUI PROBLEM.  It makes perfect sense, right.  Who would risk more than a month in jail for a few drinks.  

Apparently - lots of people.  Maybe even more people now, than when the penalties were previously lower.  Unfortunately the State's math is flawed.  Let me give you some anecdotal evidence.

A few weeks ago I was sitting in an arraignment with a client waiting for our case to be called.  Before the judge started calling cases he told the packed court room about Arizona's DUI penalties.  After going through the sentencing schemes he also made the following disclosure in open court. He stated, these DUI penalties have become harsher and harsher ever since he had been practicing law (and by grey color of his remaining hair that appeared to be a long time). "However, my courtroom still stays full." He went on to say that "we all know" the new DUI penalties have not reduced the number of DUI cases but it is the law.  "Fair or not these are the laws I am required to follow."

Well it is not everyday a judge, in open court, makes such a candid admission.  Moreover, the judge's speech was absolutely correct about the Arizona DUI laws.  Those of who are involved in Arizona DUI cases, "all know" the math is wrong.  We all know, law enforcement included, raising penalties does not reduce the number DUI cases.  One reason is the real consequence of a DUI is not jail, but taking someone's life.  If that is not enough to stop someone from driving impaired, then long jail terms that no person really knows the specifics of (until after they are charged), certainly will not have a great impact.

However, I have an idea of what may work.  In part two of this post I make my case for how I believe we should address the problem.  That is, if we are serious about solving it - which I hope we are.


Lawrence Koplow

The DUI With No Driving - Part 1

 

DUI stands for driving under the influence. However, years ago Arizona, like many other states, changed its DUI laws to cover situations where the person was not actually driving. Instead, to be guilty of DUI, a person just needed to be "controlling" a vehicle. The classic example is the vehicle stopped in the middle of the road and the driver is passed out drunk. That is an obvious case of someone controlling a car without driving.

However, there are many situations, where it is not so obvious that a person is "actually controlling" a car. There has been a growing debate regarding as to what it means to be "controlling" a car in a DUI case. For example, people can legally use their car as a shelter after they have been drinking alcohol.  Someone who sleeps in their properly parked car after getting drunk is not "controlling" their car for purposes of Arizona DUI law. However, if they put the key in the ignition to turn on the air condition, does that action create a DUI? The Arizona Supreme Court Case recently attempted to end the debate in the case of State v. Zaragoza.

Zaragoza was convicted on an Aggravated DUI charge after he was found at an apartment complex:

•    Sitting in his car
•    The engine was off
•    His hand on the wheel, and
•    The keys in the ignition,
•    Alcohol in his system

Zaragoza claimed that he had no intention to drive, but only to sleep in his car. He claims the reason the keys were in the ignition was to roll down the window, and turn on the radio. 

He appealed his conviction based on the argument that the jury was provided inappropriate instructions regarding the law of actual physical control of vehicle.

The Arizona DUI statute does not define what “actual physical control” of a vehicle is, and there have been varying types of jury instructions on the meaning of this phrase through-out the courts. 

The Arizona Supreme Court took this case, and attempted to clarify the law’s definition. They stated that actual physical control has nothing to do with the intent of the driver to move or use the vehicle, but the actual and imminent danger to the him/her self or others at the time alleged to have control. This means that all facts must be looked at together in order to appropriately determine if there was an actual or imminent danger.

The Court also held that in this case, the instructions did not mislead the jury, but that they may have misstated the law. Because of the variations in instruction, and the result of Zaragoza's case, the Arizona Supreme Court decided to provide a new jury instruction for future cases.

The new instruction will be published in Part II of the blog post.

If you need assistance or additional information about an Arizona DUI case, please contact the Koplow Law Firm Online or by phone at (602) 494-3444.

Lawrence Koplow