Testing the testers: B.C. lawyers snap up surplus breathalyzers to check for flaws

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WATCH: Law firm begins testing of breathalyzers – Mar 25, 2019

How accurate are the breathalyzers used by B.C. police officers?

It’s a question a Vancouver law firm intends to answer as it cracks into a small mountain of surplus devices of the same make and model used by local police forces.

Lawyer Paul Doroshenko says Acumen Law has acquired 168 of the so-called “big breathalyzers” kept at police detachments as surplus from the state of Illinois.

These include 150 older Intox EC/IR units and 18 of the newer EC/IR II, which are currently used in western Canada.

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The firm plans to open some of the devices up and conduct tests on others by blowing various chemical compounds through the machines to test for flaws or false positives. If problems crop up, the machines will be passed to experts to test in a lab environment, he said.

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“We’re in this situation where we know we get occasions where the samples aren’t reliable. We know there’s problems with it; nothing is infallible,” Doroshenko said.

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“Your iPhone, they spend billions of dollars researching, and my iPhone still crashes.”

Doroshenko believes people exposed to certain chemicals, such as paint removers or compounds found in commercial salons, may be more likely to get a reaction from the machines.

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Doroshenko and his colleagues have had success in the past discovering flaws with other devices, which he said has resulted in changes in the way local police forces test and calibrate their breathalyzers.

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But he said conducting such tests can be tough, as many manufacturers won’t sell the devices to civilians, let alone defence lawyers — hence the workaround with the surplus gear.

“I think most [police] officers realize that we are quality control,” he said.

“We are not doing this just because, we’re doing it because we’re trying to figure out circumstances where you can’t rely on those breath samples. And they want that, too.”

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Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth said he isn’t concerned that Acumen’s investigations will lead to impaired driving convictions being turfed.

“Getting a bunch of breathalyzer technology from the States and then trying to say if there’s something wrong with them then that should apply in Canada, I don’t think that would really stand up,” Farnworth said.

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“What’s important is the technology we have here in Canada is approved; it does go through regular tests. There are court cases all the time … so I have confidence in the system that we have in place.”

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Global News has requested comment on the matter from the B.C. RCMP.

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In the meantime, Doroshenko says he’s keen to start experimenting.

“We’ve got eight that we’re going to be able to get up and running. We’re going to be able to blow all sorts of chemicals through it and see what it does,” he said.

“You don’t know necessarily what other organic chemicals are going to cause a reading on it.”

—With files from John Hua

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