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Testing Equipment Focus of Testimony in Santa Ynez Valley DUI Trial

Defense attorney Darryl Genis asks a question Thursday during the trial for his client, Benjamin Bettencourt, who is charged in connection with the 2012 crash on Highway 246 that led to the death of teacher Jennifer Clark.
Defense attorney Darryl Genis asks a question Thursday during the trial for his client, Benjamin Bettencourt, who is charged in connection with the 2012 crash on Highway 246 that led to the death of teacher Jennifer Clark. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Testimony in the trial of a Santa Ynez Valley man charged with drunken driving, causing a crash that critically injured his passenger who later died, centered on the equipment the California Highway Patrol used to measure the driver’s blood-alcohol content.

Benjamin Bettencourt, 39, faces two charges related to driving while under the influence of alcohol and driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 or higher in addition to a pair of enhancements of causing great bodily injury.

Bettencourt, a paraplegic due to injuries he received in another fatal accident in which he driving years ago, was driving Nov. 24, 2012, when his specially equipped van went off Highway 246 between Buellton and Solvang. The van struck a tree, critically injuring Jennifer Clark, 39, of Los Olivos.

The local teacher and volleyball coach died of her injuries several days later at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.

One witness, California Highway Patrol Officer Scott Williams, spent Thursday in the Santa Barbara County Superior Court trial in Santa Maria testifying about the policies and practices of maintaining and operating equipment used to measure drivers’ blood-alcohol levels.

In addition to routine accuracy tests, the machines also are calibrated.

Defense attorney Darryl Genis asked the CHP officer about the procedures used to confirm the system’s accuracy and practices for calibrating the machine used to conduct field sobriety tests. Genis asked Williams when the machine was previous calibrated, but the CHP officer said he couldn’t say since his records only go back to January 2013.

“You cannot tell this jury this device was calibrated before it was used on my client?” Genis asked.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Kevin Duffy asked what happens if accuracy doesn’t come within the acceptable ranges during tests. 

At that point, Williams said, the machine would be calibrated. 

“It doesn’t happen that often,” Williams said of the number of times inaccurate readings occur.

Positive alcohol test readings are possible with a “swish and spit” of alcohol, Genis said, calling that a classic mouth alcohol while demonstrating with a sip of water he spit into a cup.

Genis asked if Williams knew that eating white bread, white rice or soy sauce can lead to field breathalyzer tests of 0.10.

“I did not know that,” Williams said.

Genis said that if the prosecutor had made the device available in the courtroom he would demonstrate, drawing an objection from Duffy.

“My point is, if there were a device here, I’ve got white rice and soy sauce. We could do the Pepsi challenge,” Genis said.

“This is not the Pepsi challenge,” Judge Rogelio Flores said, ordering the defense attorney’s comment to be stricken.

Under questioning from  Duffy, the CHP officer said a 15-minute observation period helps ensure a suspect hasn’t recently eaten food, taken a drink or otherwise done anything to affect a breath test.

“So in an abundance of caution you almost double it?” Duffy asked.

“Correct,” Williams said.

Post-crash breathalyzer tests results said Bettencourt’s blood alcohol content was 0.126 and 0.129. Tests on blood taken more than an hour later revealed a blood alcohol content of 0.088, Duffy said.

In pre-trial motions, Genis fought to get blood evidence banned from being presented to the jury. During the defense portion of the trial, Genis is expected to have an expert testify alleged flaws regarding the lab that performed the blood tests.

Earlier this week, testimony came from employees of establishments where the defendant and victim drank alcohol and ate food in the hours before the crash along with a friend who was with the pair at those locations.

The trial is scheduled to resume Tuesday. It’s expected to stretch at least into mid-March, according to some estimates.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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