California v. Trombetta

PETITIONER: California
LOCATION: The Superior Court Of California

DOCKET NO.: 83-305
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: State appellate court

CITATION: 467 US 479 (1984)
ARGUED: Apr 18, 1984
DECIDED: Jun 11, 1984

Charles R.B. Kirk - on behalf of the Petitioner
Charles R. B. Kirk - for petitioner
Deputy Attorney General - for petitioner
George L. Schraer - for the State Public Defender of California as amicus curiae urging affirmance
John F. DeMeo - argued the cause for respondents
John F. De Meo - on behalf of the Respondents
Lisa Short - for the State Public Defender of California as amicus curiae urging affirmance

Facts of the case

In 1980 and 1981, in separate incidents, each of four respondents were suspected of drunk driving on California highways and pulled over by police. Each agreed to an Intoxilyzer test (commonly known as a “breathalyzer test”) that registered a blood-alcohol level (BAL) substantially higher than .10, the legal BAL limit in California. Each was charged with drunk driving. Before trial, each defendant motioned to exclude the breathalyzer test results from evidence by arguing that the police had failed to preserve breath samples from the time of the stop. All of their motions to exclude were denied. Two of the defendants were tried and convicted by the municipal court of Sonoma County; the remaining two had not yet gone to trial. All defendants appealed to the California Court of Appeals of the First District, Division Four, which granted the convicted respondents a new trial and ordered that the test results be excluded from all the trials. 


Does the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment require law enforcement agencies to preserve breath samples of suspected drunk drivers so that results of breath analysis tests may be used at trial?

Media for California v. Trombetta

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 18, 1984 in California v. Trombetta

Thurgood Marshall:

He had that opportunity from the day he was arrested until the day he was convicted.

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments next in California against Trombetta.

Mr. Kirk, I think you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Charles R.B. Kirk:

Thank you, Your Honor.

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court.

Recently in South Dakota versus Neville this Court again decried the carnage caused by drunken drivers on our highways.

Spurred on by increasing public awareness, and encouraged by the federal government, the states are stepping up law enforcement efforts to combat this national problem, and one of the most effective tools in law enforcement's arsenal is the breath alcohol test.

Such tests are used in every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

In California, which I am sure is typical, breath alcohol tests are used in two-thirds of all drunk driving arrests.

Evidential breath test instruments provide a rapid, economical, and accurate means of immediately determining the suspect's blood alcohol content.

Because they are self-contained, automatic units, they can be easily and accurately operated by a field officer with minimal training.

The ease and rapidity of operation allows the officer to complete the test quickly and return to the highway to do his job.

Immediate results also permit additional sample collection where an unexpectedly low result suggests intoxication by combination of alcohol and drugs.

Breath testing is also the least intrusive of the options from the suspect's point of view.

It does not involve bodily intrusion or invasion of privacy, and assures the shortest period of detention.

Breath testing is broadly accepted as valid.

Self-contained devices avoid the possibility of human error or manipulation and allow subsequent checks upon the accuracy of the test system.

Now, this case is here on certiorari.

After a California Court of Appeals held unconstitutional as a violation of federal due process use of an evidential breath test instrument unless that device preserves the breath sample actually tested for possible retesting by the defendant or alternatively a procedure is followed which collects an equivalent sample for the defendant's use.

In the context of this particular case, the instrument at issue is an Intoxolizer, widely used on a national basis, and constituting 82 percent of the evidential breath test devices in California.

Now, I will first focus on the machine itself, and then I am going to outline why its use does not offend due process.

The Intoxolizer does not save any sample for possible retesting.

In use, the suspect blows through a tube leading into a chamber within the machine.

When the device determines that the air deep in the lungs has been reached, the sample is momentarily held for analysis using infrared light, and the blood alcohol content is measured.

Then the test sample is automatically pumped out of the machine, and the chamber is purged with clear air.

The purge cycle promotes test integrity by ensuring that no residual alcohol remains as a contaminant, that the instrument is starting from zero, and that no capricious event occurs to interfere with test accuracy.

It is actually a diagnostic step which protects the defendant.

The machine must be purged to prepare it for another test on that same person or another individual.

Thus the test sample purged to clear the machine is automatically destroyed as an integral part of the analytical process, and it is never collected or reduced to a form which permits practical retention.

The decision of the Court of Appeal by its terms extends not only to the Intoxolizer but to all evidential breath test machines.