ORANGE COUNTY – The Orange County Crime Lab produced inaccurate blood alcohol test results in 2,200 driving-under-the-influence cases filed by prosecutors this year — mistakes that could affect outcomes in dozens of cases.
Prosecutors in recent days sent letters to people charged with driving under the influence, including 900 whose cases resulted in convictions. The letters advised them that their cases were among those with miscalculations.
Crime lab officials said the “human error” occurred over nearly five months and led to mistakes in the forensic examination of blood alcohol content. But they insist the miscalculations were so few that they affect only about 200 cases. As few as 20 people could see their blood alcohol test levels drop below 0.08%, California’s legal definition of DUI impairment.
But veteran DUI attorneys across Orange County said flaws with the lab’s basic testing probably will affect many more cases because sentence enhancements and negotiations are often based on how far over the legal limit a motorist was determined to be.
“If it took them nearly five months to figure out this mistake, what else is there?” said Virginia Landry, an Orange County defense attorney known as the “DUI Queen.” “Everyone wants the roads to be safe. But this is a forensic nightmare with a lack of integrity in the process.”
She said her office is reviewing dozens of cases.
“I want all the data,” she said.
Orange County Crime Lab Director Bruce Houlihan said the facility, which serves the entire county, discovered flaws in its analysis Oct. 10 while conducting an audit.
“It was a human error that led to an instrument to be wrongly calibrated,” he said.
The lab tests each blood sample twice using two machines and then averages the results, Houlihan said. The error affected one of the machines beginning May 29. The machine uses five calibrator data points for levels of alcohol in the blood; one was entered incorrectly, Houlihan said.
As a result, the machine was off by 0.003 percentage points, he said.
“Because the error was so small, we didn’t catch it,” he said. The lab has safeguards designed to catch any error bigger than 0.004 percentage points, he added.
About 200 cases will have the blood alcohol average change by 0.01 points. Twenty people will have their blood-alcohol content dropped from 0.08% to 0.07% — below the DUI legal limit — Houlihan said.
Farrah Emami, a district attorney’s spokeswoman, confirmed that the changes may affect some cases, but she said drops in blood alcohol content below the legal limit don’t guarantee that charges will be dropped.
“When you arrest a person and they have a 0.07 two hours after arrest, they had a 0.08 at the time of arrest. We have obtained convictions in those cases,” she said.