Breathalyzers in DUIs

Even those who have never faced DUI charges are often familiar with the concept of the breathalyzer. Essentially, the breathalyzer is a machine designed to test a driver's blood alcohol content (BAC) and is often used during a DUI stop.

Here's a look at the basics of breathalyzers in DUIs.

How Do Breathalyzers Work?

Breathalyzer machines (which get their name from the words "breath" and "analyzer") work like this:

  • Collection of a breath sample: In DUI cases, a police officer asks the driver to provide a breath sample by blowing into the breathalyzer.
  • Calculation of breath alcohol content: The breathalyzer measures the alcohol content of the driver's breath.
  • Approximation of BAC: Once the machine has recorded the amount of alcohol in the driver's breath, it converts that number to an approximate BAC. The conversion is based on an established formula.

In many DUI cases, police officers provide the reading from a breathalyzer test as evidence that a driver was impaired at the time of the arrest.

Are Breathalyzers Always Right?

No. Breathalyzers are generally regarded as reliable instruments that approximate blood alcohol content, but they are not completely foolproof. Here's a look at some of the possible ways a breathalyzer might provide an incorrect reading.

  • Improper calibration. Like any instrument, the breathalyzer needs to be tuned in order to work properly. A breathalyzer that has not been calibrated recently may provide slightly incorrect readings.
  • Mouth alcohol. Some breathalyzers have been shown to provide false readings for people with high mouth alcohol levels (e.g. those who recently used mouthwash) who are not intoxicated. An incorrect reading for this reason can usually be corrected by a reading taken after the person rinses his mouth.
  • Certain conditions. Some studies have shown that people with diabetes and people on diets may provide falsely inflated BAC results on breathalyzers. This results from certain compounds found in the mouth under those conditions that aren't present among the general population.
  • Previous use. Some studies have shown that breathalyzers may maintain a small but significant amount from a previous DUI suspect. This amount may be enough to push a driver over the .08 BAC threshold.

If you think your breathalyzer test might have provided incorrect results, it's important to speak with a DUI lawyer about your legal options for contesting the charges against you.

Do I Have to Take a Breathalyzer?

In most states, it is legal to refuse a breathalyzer test if you agree to submit to another analysis, such as a blood draw. However, refusal almost always comes with legal ramifications. Depending on where you live, those ramifications might include:

  • Fines: Under certain circumstances, the fine for refusing a breathalyzer can be as high as $10,000. That does not include any other costs related to a DUI arrest or conviction.
  • Jail time: Minnesota, Alaska and Nebraska might penalize breathalyzer refusal with jail time. And that's for a first offense!
  • Treatment: In some parts of the country, refusing a breath test can trigger mandatory alcohol treatment, regardless of whether or not you're convicted of DUI.

In other words, refusing a breathalyzer test can be a risky game. It's important to note, too, that it is possible to be convicted of DUI without ever taking a breathalyzer.

If you'd like to know what the penalties for refusing a breathalyzer are in your state, you can speak with a DUI lawyer in your area.

Is There Any Way to Trick a Breathalyzer?

Though the myths about how to trick a breathalyzer abound (hold a penny under your tongue, drink coffee, eat heartily), the simple truth is that there's no way to "hide" your body's alcohol content from these machines.

While you may be able to consume certain foods and beverages (like onions, coffee, soda and mouthwash) to cover the smell of alcohol on your breath, these substances won't lower your body's alcohol content (or change a breathalyzer reading) in any way.

What Are the Alternatives to Breathalyzers?

There are three major alternatives to breathalyzer tests commonly in use. These include:

  • Field sobriety tests. Often used in conjunction with breathalyzers, field sobriety tests require the test taker to perform a number of tasks meant to evaluate reaction time, balance and overall capabilities. Failure of a field sobriety test can result in a DUI arrest even if a person's BAC is below the legal limit.
  • Blood tests. These must be performed by a medical professional and involve extracting a driver's blood to measure actual BAC. Because of health code requirements, blood tests are not usually performed on the roadside.
  • Urine tests. Like breath tests, urine tests use a formula to convert urine alcohol levels to blood alcohol levels.

Learn More about Breathalyzers in DUIs from a DUI Lawyer

If you'd like more information about the laws in your state that regulate breathalyzers in DUIs, consider contacting a DUI lawyer practicing in your area.

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