An Introduction to Breathalyzers
The word “Breathalyzer” began as a brand name for a product sold by Smith and Wesson, then later by National Draeger. It has since become a generic term for any device designed to use a person’s breath to measure their blood alcohol content (BAC), which is the amount of alcohol in a person’s bloodstream. For example, a BAC of .04 could mean that a person has 4 grams of alcohol for every 100 grams of blood in their body. Different jurisdictions use different exact measurements when determining BAC.
The first attempt to measure a person’s BAC by their breath took place in Marlborouh, England in 1927 during a criminal case. Police surgeon Dr. Gorsky had a suspect inflate a balloon with his breath, then determined that two liters of the man’s breath contained 1.5 milliliters of alcohol. This meant, as Dr. Gosky testified, that the man was “fifty percent drunk.” Since this experiment, many researchers have worked to improve the accuracy and reliability of breathalyzers.
Dr. Robert Borkenstein is generally credited for inventing the first scientifically reliable breath-based alcohol detection device. First working as a captain for the Indiana State Police, then as a professor at the University of Indiana, he was devoted to developing a non-invasive, accurate test that would allow police officers to easily determine whether a suspect was legally intoxicated. His device debuted in 1954; it relied on chemical oxidation (a reaction between oxygen and other compounds or chemicals) and photometry (the scientific measurement of light) to measure a person’s BAC. Modern breathalyzers are still designed along similar lines, relying on infrared spectroscopy (the study of light’s wavelengths.)
There are some issues with breathalyzers that have made them controversial ever since they became widely used by police officers across the country. First of all, a person’s BAC does not necessarily tell you their level of intoxication. People will be affected differently by the same amount of alcohol due to variations in individual tolerance levels. Many people have also claimed that the results of the breathalyzer test can be affected by many different variables, including age, sex, genetics, how quickly or slowly the person is breathing, temperature of the air outside and of the person being tested and the amount of time that has passed since the person last had a drink.
People who have been pulled over may refuse to submit to breathalyzer testing; however, this usually results in the immediate suspension of their license, and will not necessarily prevent them from being charged with DWI.
For more information about police procedure regarding BAC detection devices, contact Dallas DWI defense attorney Mark T. Lassiter.