Arresting and convicting drunk drivers in California is a complicated and time-consuming process. During a single DUI stop, officers may spend more than an hour questioning a driver and conducting a barrage of screening tests. A motorist who fails the screening is then arrested and transported to a police station for formal blood, urine or breath testing for use as evidence in court. Meanwhile, the officer is off the street where he or she is most needed.

In addition, the delay in formal testing may skew test results. Someone over the state's .08 percent blood alcohol limit when stopped, for example, may be under the limit by the time they are tested because the alcohol has had time to metabolize. Conversely, the delay often allows for a "rising blood alcohol" defense in which it is claimed that a motorist was under the legal limit when stopped, but because the alcohol they consumed was subsequently absorbed into the bloodstream, they were over the limit when tested.

Various states have employed a number of strategies to streamline the process, including equipping a police car with complex formal testing equipment (Government Technology June 1994) or, during holiday road checks, simply providing a network of drop-off points for suspected drunk drivers where they can be screened and tested while the officer returns to patrol.

Recently, the California Department of Justice (DOJ), the California Highway Patrol and a private-sector company began looking at another way to help automate the drunk-driving arrest process.

BREATHING LESSONS

One tool used routinely during a drunk-driving stop is a breath screening device -- a small, portable machine that looks like a video-game cartridge. A suspected drunk driver blows into the device and officers get a reading of the amount of alcohol in the suspect's system. DOJ is working with Intoximeters Inc., the maker of one such device, to adapt it in such a way that the test can be accepted as evidence in court. "To be an evidential instrument, there's a set of regulations that these instruments have to meet," explained Steve Scott, California DOJ alcohol coordinator. "Right now, they haven't been approved by the Department of Health Services or met any of the other criteria."

Conducting an evidential test right at the scene of a DUI stop "would eliminate a lot of unnecessary arrests," said Jerry Cox, senior vice president of Intoximeters Inc. "There will be fewer hours spent transporting someone, testing them and finding they were below the legal limit and can't be prosecuted." Cox also explained that immediate testing would help cut down on case dismissals based on the rising blood-alcohol level defense, which police were previously unable to disprove.

According to Scott, if the breath device is approved, a drunk-driving suspect could still choose a blood or urine test. "But usually the subject is told if he blows in the machine now and it's below the limit, then he'll be released, so often they pick breath because they don't have to wait."

The revamped instrument will be attached to a notebook or laptop computer that officers will use to help speed them through the process. An officer would simply run a California mag-stripe driver license through a reader on the computer to bring up all the drivers' information. The computer would then prompt the officer to start the test and supply a readout of the results on the screen. The officer would transfer the test results over telecommunications lines to a central location for recording. "Potentially, this could also simplify reporting methods by taking the information from the computer and generating reports automatically that would print out at the station," said Cox. "That would completely free the officer from being tied down with paperwork."

SHARING DATA

DOJ is looking at other potential uses of an automated system, including sharing data