SAN DIEGO — The California Supreme Court has upheld a San Diego County man’s drunken driving conviction, ruling that San Diego DUI suspects may not call expert witnesses to challenge the overall reliability of breath-alcohol tests.
The opinion, authored by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, says lawmakers have determined Breathlyzer-type tests to be fundamentally reliable as evidence in court, and that shouldn’t be questioned in court. However, expert defense witnesses are permitted to question the calibration and use of specific machines used in a particular case.
The defendant, Terry Vangelder, was arrested by a California Highway Patrol officer for driving 125 mph on state Route 163 in 2007. He told officers he had two to three glasses of wine with dinner, according to the court document.
A handheld device calibrated his blood-alcohol content to be 0.095 and 0.086 percents. At the police station, an Intoximeter test showed readings of 0.08 — the minimum amount to be considered legally drunk in California.
At trial, the judge struck the testimony of a doctor who said that such instruments are scientifically flawed in accurately testing alcohol amounts in the body.
The jury found Vangelder guilty of DUI based on the 0.08 result.
The state 4th District Court of Appeal reversed that verdict and ordered a new trial, but the San Diego City Attorney’s Office appealed to the higher court.
City Attorney Jan Goldsmith called the opinion, filed Thursday, another “victory in the war” against drunken driving.
“Driving under the influence claims thousands of lives each year,” Goldsmith said in a statement.
The office prosecuted 5,550 DUI cases last year, with a 99 percent conviction rate, he added.
Charles Sevilla, Vangelder’s attorney, said Friday the panel’s opinion was disappointing.
“This seems to be an extraordinary ruling, and we may have to test that in federal courts,” Sevilla said.
Very few DUI cases actually go to trial, he said. Most are pleaded out.
The battle of the balance between public safety and individual rights keeps on.
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