At least four drunken-driving cases have been dismissed in the Apache Junction Justice Court since January because the Pinal County Sheriff's Office failed to keep records that verified the validity of blood-alcohol readings.
The cases ranged from more minor offenses of driving while impaired to operating a vehicle above the legal .08 blood-alcohol limit to an extreme DUI.
The breathalyzer verification records were missing for periods from April 2007 to June 2008 in the Santan and Gold Canyon areas, a span of 14 months, according to officials.
Deputy Cardest James was in charge of the certification for some of that time, said Mike Minter, spokesman for the sheriff's office.
Pinal County prosecutor Michael Larsen expressed frustration with James in a May 2008 e-mail, immediately before sheriff's officials say they launched an internal audit into the matter.
Larsen said he had not received documents that demonstrated that the Intoxilyzer 8000, which the agency uses to verify blood-alcohol levels, had received the proper quality-assurance tests, even though he had requested the records several times.
"I need to know," Larsen wrote. "There are a number of (Pinal County Sheriff's Office) DUI cases that I will have to dismiss if I don't get the documents by this week. I don't want to dismiss the cases."
Sheriff's officials said two more DUI cases could be dropped because proper procedure was not followed, Minter said.
There's no way to determine how many convictions were obtained while the breathalyzer records were not kept, or how many people could have escaped a conviction if they had argued that proper record-keeping hadn't occurred.
Kostas Kalaitzidis, spokesman for the county attorney's office, said that records on criminal misdemeanors are destroyed after they are finalized. Larsen said he would not comment on any cases, citing county policy.
The most high-stakes of all the DUI cases that were dropped involved Barbara Hornbeck, a Queen Creek resident who was facing three counts of DUI, including an extreme DUI. Hornbeck initially tested with a .15 blood-alcohol level or more, according to police records. That's about twice the legal limit for driving.
The 33-year-old was stopped in June 2007 at the railroad tracks near Gantzel Road north of Empire Road, according to the police report.
Extreme DUIs can land those convicted in jail for a minimum of 30 days and include fines of $500 to $2,500, probation, a suspended driver's license and a required ignition interlock device to verify that a person has not been drinking before getting behind the wheel. Insurance premiums for those convicted of DUI also skyrocket for several years after a conviction.
However, after a lengthy and expensive court battle for both sides, a jury trial date was set for June 11, 2008, according to a court record filed in Apache Junction Justice Court.
Seven days before the trial was to begin, Larsen issued a motion to dismiss the matter, and it was granted. A notation on the motion said that the dismissal was "based on ... Intox 8000 issues."
Craig Gillespie, a DUI lawyer and former prosecutor, said that the central fact in many DUI cases is the blood-alcohol reading. A breathalyzer's calibration is required to be checked every 30 days, and a larger series of tests is run every 90 days to make sure the machine is functional, according to the sheriff's office.
His firm, The Gillespie Law Firm, has won DUI cases that showed a breathalyzer didn't have the necessary documentation to demonstrate that it worked properly. He said, though, that he has never seen a case where there was a problem in documenting equipment consistently over the span of a year.
"That's very odd," he said. "Law enforcement is charged with the responsibility of keeping these records. It's just standard practice. If they are not keeping them or misplaced them, then someone has dropped the ball."
Sheriff Chris Vasquez said that the office launched an internal audit into the matter in June.
However, his office didn't send out a news release about the audit until Tuesday, after the Tribune requested records from the Apache Junction Justice Court that verified some of the DUI dismissals.
When questioned about the timing of the announcement, Minter said that he got back to the office last week after medical leave and discussed releasing the internal audit to the media.
The sheriff also recently disclosed an internal investigation after news reports that a homicide detective was storing pornographic and racially insensitive e-mails on his computer.
The sheriff said that no disciplinary action has been taken in the matter, and that a systemwide review is under way.