A defense attorney is calling into question the accuracy of a specific machine the Long Beach Police Department used to test her client’s blood-alcohol levels—something that could potentially affect years worth of other DUI cases if the argument holds up.

Deputy Public Defender Lauren Altes is representing a man named Mario Blanco, who is accused of driving under the influence back in 2019, a misdemeanor charge that would generally not garner much scrutiny. But Altes has repeatedly probed whether the evidence police collected meets muster in her case and potentially hundreds of other cases.

The question at the heart of her defense is whether the internal diagnostic tests designed by a breathalyzer’s manufacturer are critical in determining whether that device is functioning properly.

The Long Beach Police Department has stood by the machine’s effectiveness, but in an evidentiary hearing before Judge Christopher Frisco last week, Altes questioned LBPD forensic toxicologist Gregory Gossage under oath about why the department relied on a machine that was returning errors during its automated internal checks.

At issue is one of the LBPD’s 10 Intoxilyzer 5000EN devices, a breathalyzer used by its crime lab in DUI cases. On Nov. 10, 2019, the Intoxilyzer with the serial number 68-12339 was used to take a breath sample from Blanco.

This particular machine appears to have failed its own internal diagnostics tests on the day Blanco was arrested, and many others, according to Altes.

From August 2019 to February 2020, a period when the machine was consistently failing its internal standards diagnostics, the crime lab used the machine nearly 400 times in DUI investigations, according to LBPD usage records obtained by Altes. When Altes began to point out that service records for the machine seemed to indicate the machine wasn’t operating in a way consistent with state law, the judge cut her off, saying she wasn’t deposing Gossage. Any argument or decision about whether the evidence produced by the machine is faulty will have to come at a later date.

“That’s a great argument for a jury,” Frisco said, before asking her stick to questioning Gossage on the machine’s history.

Altes’ questioning of Gossage was at times very technical and took more than two hours.

The Intoxilyzer uses spectrosopy to determine the concentration of alcohol in a given sample, taken from someone breathing into the machine. It determines the alcohol concentration by passing a beam of infrared light through the sample, and then measuring the amount of light absorbed by the sample against the known absorption rate of ethyl alcohol, a process Gossage called “pretty straightforward and simple.”

Gossage testified that he didn’t know the current status of machine 68-12339, except to say that it hasn’t been operational since August 2020. It was taken out of service because a tungsten lightbulb in the machine had burned out, but Gossage testified that he wasn’t sure if that bulb has been repaired. He added that the machine was “working properly” on Nov. 10, 2019, the date Blanco was arrested for DUI and provided a breath sample into the machine.

Though the Intoxilyzer 5000EN is no longer made, and the manufacturer no longer provides parts or service for them, the LBPD is not looking to replace the machines in the immediate future, according to Gossage.

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Anthony Pignataro is an investigative reporter and editor for the Long Beach Post. He has close to three decades of experience in journalism leading numerous investigations and long-form journalism projects for the OC Weekly and other publications. He joined the Post in May 2021.