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How accurate are PBT preliminary breath tests?

Many drivers who are suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) will be asked to submit to a preliminary breathing test during the early roadside stages of a DUI investigation, prior to the DUI arrest.

State laws vary with regards to this testing, but many states do not consider the information gathered from these tests to be “evidentiary” in nature, and therefore, they cannot be used in a DUI trial as evidence.

The information gathered from the test is used, however, to establish probable cause for a DUI arrest. It also may allow the police to impound your vehicle and may increase the amount of time you are questioned by the police.

What is a PBT preliminary breathing test and is it reliable?

PBT preliminary breathing test machines are small, handheld devices a police officer can carry with them in their patrol vehicles. The device has a disposable mouthpiece which the driver blows a breath of air into, and the machine analyzes the breath for alcohol.

The accuracy of the preliminary breathing tests has been debated for years. One of the most common complaints is that the device measures the mouth alcohol of drivers; something which can be elevated if a driver just took a drink of alcohol but which may not accurately reflect a driver’s intoxication level.

Other experts claim errors with the preliminary breathing machines can also occur for any of the following reasons:

-Defective equipment
-Administration mistakes
-Improper calibration of the equipment
-False readings due to other health conditions such as diabetes or acid reflux
-False positives

Another common complaint of the preliminary breathing machine is that they do not provide a clear record of the test results. The results are simply displayed on the LED screen immediately following the test, and drivers have no tangible record of the testing results, leaving many drivers to wonder whether or not their results were ever accurately reported.

Preliminary breath test and the Intoxilyzer

Drivers should understand the difference between preliminary breathing testing done with a portable device from the much more complicated tests which are done with other breathalyzer machines (i.e., the Intoxilyzer 8000 and its predecessor, the Intoxilyzer 5000).

Under many states DUI laws, drivers are required to submit to a chemical test of their breath, blood, or urine if they are arrested for DUI. While drivers have the right to refuse the PBT test, drivers who have given their implied consent to submit to a chemical test following a DUI arrest do not have the right to refuse to the more elaborate test done with the non-portable breathalyzer machine. If they choose to refuse they will face an administrative penalty and have their license immediately suspended.

Do I legally have to submit to the preliminary breath test?

As mentioned above, the preliminary breathing tests are voluntary. Unfortunately, not only will officers probably not tell you this, but they also may try to convince you to take the test just to “make sure you can safely operate your car.”

Given the potential issues with the accuracy of the test, however, most DUI lawyers suggest that you refuse any type of field sobriety test.

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