Still Essential -- Minding Your Manners Before a Breath Test

Posted On September 20, 2017 Charles Ramsay

Question: would we write a blog post solely because we found a fantastic picture of BCA forensic toxicologist David Edin and wanted an excuse to post it?

Answer: Yes.

We recently blogged about our successes challenging breath tests that were conducted without a proper observation period. Clearly nothing has changed in the last few weeks -- a 15-20 minute observation period, to ensure that the test subject does not burp or belch prior to providing a breath sample, is a critical safeguard that needs to be followed in order for the test results to have any validity or reliability. 

But we were recently going through the updated training materials that law enforcement use to "re-certify" themselves as DataMaster DMT operators, and came across this picture . . . and one other interesting tidbit. Previous training materials would describe the observation period as "essential," while all of the documented literature from the scientific community advises that if a driver DOES burp or belch during the observation period, you must at a minimum start that observation period over again. 

This is something that pretty much goes without saying in all 50 states -- if someone burps, observe them for another 15 minutes (or, better yet, perform a blood test where mouth alcohol is no concern at all). Yet, that language is oddly missing from these latest materials. And this, frankly, is a little shocking.

You'll have to trust us a little bit on this one, but that pre-test observation period is indeed a crucial scientific safeguard for breath testing, and without it, nobody has any reason to trust those results. Omitting the instruction to "restart the observation period" is like casually omitting "be sure to check your blind spot before merging" from the student driver's manual. Will it cause an accident every time you fail to check your blind spot? Absolutely not. But when it does . . . well, that's why you should always check your blind spot.

Hopefully this omission was just an oversight, and we're being overly aggressive when digging through the government's training materials. Because if it wasn't, we're going to have a field day in court challenging breath tests and doing what we like to do best: quality control for law enforcement and forensic scientists alike. 

But in the meantime, it is nice to see Mr. Edin letting his proverbial hair down a little bit and finding a fun way to demonstrate the dangers of mouth alcohol and the importance of a proper observation period (which is the only reason that photo exists in the first place). Cheers!

Daniel Koewler