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It's a Machine--And it's stupid

Welcome to the wonderful world of the CMI Intoxilyzer 5000EN model (as well as its ancestors, so long as they hold up). The machine in this picture is familiar to lawyers who work in the field of DUI defense and sadly, to those who are dragged into detention facilities across this state in handcuffs and are forced to blow into this machine. Beneath its brushed stainless steel case beats the heart of an Atari-era processor that spits out a small card showing the alleged breath alcohol concentration (BAC) of our hapless motorists. At its heart, it is a device that funnels air down a long tube (shown on the left of the machine) into a sample chamber where a lightbulb shines a beam of light into and across the chamber. As the light crosses the tube-like chamber which contains about 81-82 milliliters of air, the vapor from volatile substances in the breath absorb light in certain wavelengths.
An infrared detector on the other side of the chamber measures the light received, subtracts that from the light transmitted on the other side of the chamber, and comes up with a number which is then converted, by way of some arcane and mysterious algorithm into a number which purports to represent an individual's BAC. I say arcane and mysterious because the manufacturer of the machine, CMI, will not disclose the mathematical process by which the machine does this computation. This process is contained in the "source code" which CMI claims to be proprietary and secret and therefore not susceptible to discovery or disclosure. Further, CMI refuses to disclose its operating manual or any other documentation to anyone who is not connected with law enforcement. If I wished to purchase a new Intoxilyzer from CMI, their corporate decision is that the company will not sell any of its products to criminal defense lawyers. Now what could possibly be the reason for such a business decision other than to hide the workings from the public? What is CMI hiding? Fortunately, eBay sells used machines from time to time, and it isn't all that difficult to obtain a unit, even though the software may be different from the software purchased by the State of Nevada.
As a Reno DUI Lawyer, I am expected to accept at face value the accuracy and the precision of this fine machine. I have had some judges tell me that because the machine has been accepted for use in Nevada by the Committee for Testing and Intoxication, its accuracy is not subject to challenge. This is akin to saying that because Ford has installed airbags in a vehicle, the safety of that vehicle can never be challenged. Accurate? Not hardly. The machines have a margin of error (or margin of reliability, as the lab people like to say) of anywhere between 10% and 20%, depending upon who you are listening to. In addition, although the unit is calibrated at least every 3 months (imagine having to tune up your car every 3 months to make sure that it continues to drive) it is cross checked for accuracy each time against a "known" value aqueous solution that itself, can vary by 5% from the stated value.
Like almost all products, the Intoxilyzer comes with a warranty. The warranty, however, is only good for one year and very few of the models currently operating in this state are newer than 2 years old. Additionally, you would expect that a warranty would provide some confidence that the machine would do what it purports to do, that is, to measure a concentration of alcohol in a person's breath. No such luck. The warranty provided by CMI expressly states that it is not a warranty of fitness for a particular purpose meaning, I suppose, that so long as it turns on, makes a pleasant humming noise, and spits out cards with "values" on them, it is not important whether those values approximate a motorist's real breath alcohol concentration.

In short, we have an expensive machine in virtually every police substation in this state which might work and might not, which might show a breath concentration or might not, and which may form the basis of putting our citizens into jail or prison, and we are almost powerless to stop this madness. Welcome to the gulag, folks, and the madhouse that is DUI enforcement in the State of Nevada. Is it any wonder my hairline is rapidly receding?