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May 4, 2009

I Demand A Paper Trail!

by Brad Warbiany

Because if I can’t trust the machines, I’m going to have to count the C2H5OH molecules myself!

Minnesota may be forced to drop thousands of driving-while-impaired cases and change the way it prosecutes others in the wake of a state Supreme Court ruling Thursday, prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed.

The state’s highest court ruled that defendants in drunken-driving cases have the right to make prosecutors turn over the computer “source code” that runs the Intoxilyzer breath-testing device to determine whether the device’s results are reliable.

But there’s a problem: Prosecutors can’t turn over the code because they don’t have it.

The Kentucky company that makes the Intoxilyzer says the code is a trade secret and has refused to release it, thus complicating DWI prosecutions.

Now, as an electrical engineer who works for a company that deals with government (or usually contractors whose end customer is the government), I run into issues like this quite a bit. In some cases (such as any life-support medical device or flight-critical avionics) the source code is actually required for certification, because the regulators step through code line-by-line to make sure things are truly deterministic.

Is this an issue in a breathalyzer? I’d say almost certainly not.

But I also see how damaging it is for people who get a single drunk-driving (which in many cases — due to the 0.08 limit now in most states — the drivers aren’t materially “impaired”) offense on their record. The financial implications can often be $2,500 to $10,000, not counting the higher insurance. It can often affect jobs. One of my old neighbors worked for a regional restaurant chain, and once relayed a joke when the subject came up: “What do you call a district manager who gets a DUI? A store manager.” Simply put, their insurance wouldn’t allow them to employ someone with a DUI on their record in any capacity where they might be required to drive (or use a company car, which was the case there) as a major portion of their work.

So is this a technicality? Yes. Is it likely that if the defense gets a hold of the source code, they’ll be able to prove that the device is unreliable? Probably not. But will it keep the state of Minnesota from dramatically adversely affecting the lives of quite a few drivers who are driving responsibly, carefully, and just a shade over the legal limit? I hope so.

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1 Comment

  1. I seek out and read a lot of material regarding the ‘mysterious source code’ used in breathalyzers. The Intoxilyzer is referred to time and time again in these stories.

    Clearly, all the cards need to be on the table. In making code available, there are two possible threats to Intoxilyzer’s creators that I can see.

    First threat – Intellectual Property Management – if their code is made public, it can be copied and used by another company. While this may be against the law, it would require a great deal of money to stop once it began happening. This threat is a financial one and should be trumped by moral responsibility. In how many companies would it be?

    Second threat – Revelation of Bad Code – if there is a mistake, or parts of code they don’t have rights to, or practices which intentionally lead to higher results, they are toast as a company. This is a far more serious threat, but one which should STILL be trumped by moral responsibility.

    The fact that they won’t hand over their code suggests one of the two above scenarios. In a situation where people’s rights are at stake, they need to come clean one way or the other.

    I desparately want to see accuracy in breathalyzer results. I am a big fan of .08 because although there are ‘a lot of guys’ you and I may know who can be at a .08 and seem unaffected, the ultimate truth is that MOST people at a .08 exhibit symptoms of lethargy, slow reaction time, and lack of co-ordination. Driving is a serious and potentially dangerous task which should not be performed drunk, high, tired, or wired. .08 is a good, fair level to test for.

    But the testing MUST be fair and accurate.

    Allen Porter
    President
    DrinkingAndDriving.Org – Prevention, Education, Assistance

    Comment by Allen D. Porter — May 4, 2009 @ 5:47 pm

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