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New DUI test holds up in court

Field sobriety tests -- reciting the alphabet, walking a straight line, blowing into a portable Breathalyzer -- go a long way in determining if a driver is drunk. But these tests do not provide legal evidence in cases of driving under the influence. That evidence traditionally has come from breath tests administered at law enforcement headquarters.

In Modesto, however, officers are using a new device, and taking it with them in their patrol cars, for immediate breath analyses good enough for court. Blood-alcohol readouts from the Evidential Portable Alcohol System have yet to be challenged in Modesto Police Department DUI cases.

By using the new devices in the field, police learn immediately if a suspect''s blood alcohol content is 0.08 or higher, the state''s limit. If not, police save a trip to the police station and can look for other drivers who might be drunk.

Officials like the idea of being able to devote more time to patrolling the streets looking for drunken drivers, especially given Modesto''s ranking in state statistics that show the city 35th in DUI arrests when compared with 45 cities of comparable size. At the same time, the city ranks first in fatal crashes, and second in the number of people younger than 21 driving under the influence.

"There''s got to be a correlation in there somewhere," said police officer Tony Scopesi, who focuses on looking for DUI suspects.

Police also suspect that many of the city''s hit-and-run crashes are DUI-related. Too many injuries, deaths. The bottom line, police say, is that too many people are injured or killed because people get behind the wheel while intoxicated.

A 44-year-old man died at about 1 a.m. one day in late July when the Corvette he was driving hit a parked train along Yosemite Boulevard. Two more men, ages 22 and 24, died last month when their car slammed into a tree on Houser Lane near Carpenter Road. A toxicology test revealed that the man driving the Corvette was under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and police believe that is what caused the crash. Police were still awaiting the results of toxicology tests in the Houser Lane accident, but Lt. Joel Broumas said officers believe alcohol contributed to that crash, too.

The Modesto Police Department was the first agency in the state to put the new breath analyzers to use, and now has nine of them. The Modesto office of the California Highway Patrol has 15, and the Stanislaus County Sheriff''s Department and other agencies in the county are expected to get them soon, said Kurtis Smith of the state Department of Justice.

Some 1,100 of the new breath test devices are being distributed statewide through the Justice Department. The devices cost $3,700 each, paid for with grant money from the office of Traffic Safety.

"The beauty of this is it gives you a test virtually at the time of the stop," Smith said. "The benefit is also the officers can better utilize their time."

Suspects have choices. People suspected of drunken driving have three choices: a breath test, a blood test or neither, in which case the drivers go to jail automatically. A blood test means a trip to the hospital. A breath test used to start out with a puff into the portable Breathalyzer. If the puff confirmed the officer''s suspicions, police took the driver to the station to give another puff -- this one into the stationary breath device for court evidence.

The new device saves a trip to the police station if the field test shows the driver with a blood-alcohol level below 0.08 percent. Besides saving time, the new test throws a wrench in a common defense argument: that a driver''s blood alcohol level can go up, to 0.08 percent or more, after he or she is stopped and during the time that it takes police to get the driver to the police station for testing.

Scopesi and officer Craig Breckenridge each have tested about 80 suspected drunken drivers with the new breath analyzers since February.

With at least 30 bars, bowling alleys and pool halls where people drink and stay out late in the city, Scopesi said he believes there could be as many as 400 people driving while intoxicated on weeknights, and as many as 1,200 on weekend nights. There is no way police can catch them all, but they hope the new device will keep them from wasting time -- so they can catch more drunken drivers before more people are hurt and killed.

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