Kristin Nicole Stiers was stopped by the Lake Saint Louis, Missouri police on July 12, 2013 and charged with driving while intoxicated. A breathalyzer test revealed that her blood alcohol content was above that state's limits.
This probably seems like a clear-cut case, but Stiers' lawyer discovered that Missouri police had been incorrectly calibrating their breathalyzers, thanks to a change of one word—an "or" to an "and"—in Missouri state regulations.
That's right: If you were arrested for a DWI in the state of Missouri any time during the period of November 30, 2012 to January 29, 2014, the breathalyzer tests you took are now inadmissible in court, according to a ruling just handed down by the Supreme Court of Missouri.
This may be little comfort to some people.
"There are individuals out there who have done jail time, lost their license, lost their livelihood, had to pay lawyers thousands of dollars to represent them. Some people call it a technicality, but it really isn't. It's making sure something works," said Stiers' attorney Matt Fry.
The "something" Fry is talking about is the breathalyzer itself. In Missouri, the Department of Health and Senior Services sets the standards that police are supposed to use to verify and calibrate breathalyzers. During the period in question, the police thought that they just had to calibrate the machines at one level of blood alcohol content: .10, .08, or .04. In fact, the DHSS had changed the regulation to say that police should calibrate the machines at all three levels: .10, .08, and .04. Problem is, the regulators apparently hadn't adequately communicated the change of an "or" to an "and" to the police.
"I don't believe any officers were aware that that change had been made," Travis Jones, a former police officer who now trains police in the use of breathalyzers, told local KSDK News.
Attorney Fry believes that around 4,000 people may have been prosecuted for DWI in Missouri during the period when police were incorrectly calibrating their breathalyzers. According to the Missouri Supreme Court ruling, any convictions derived from breathalyzer results during that timeframe were wrongly made.
Sounds like a lot of people in Missouri need to contact a lawyer, stat. Although you can't get back time you already spent in jail, can you?
Some may have better luck: "At least a hundred cases [are still] pending in this area that will be impacted by this decision," Adam Woody, a defense attorney in Springfield told KSPR News. "It's really the 'and' that changed everything," he added.
Just to confuse police officers in Missouri a little more, the law has since been changed back to read "or." Officers can now choose at which blood alcohol level to calibrate their machines. And, no, the police in Missouri have not had the best rap as of late. Ferguson, anyone?
In any event, although the general efficacy of breathalyzer tests has been questioned in the past, it's unlikely that their validity has ever hung on a single "and," as it did in this Missouri case. In the end, a lot of people in the Show-Me State may be able to thank a clever lawyer and a bunch of inept regulators for their freedom.