Portable Breath Tests (PBTs): Should you blow if stopped for DWI / DUI?

Portable Breath Tests (PBTs): Should you blow into a portable breath testing device if stopped for driving while intoxicated (DWI)? Recently, according to an APD officer, the Austin police chief personally oversaw the purchase of a large number of PBTs for use by officers involved in the APD DWI Enforcement Unit. Previously, we didn’t see much use of these roadside devices except occasionally by deputies with TCSO and troopers with DPS. The average citizen might think that these PBTs are a good idea, thinking that if a detained citizen were to blow into one of these devices and the result were under a 0.08 (the legal limit), they would be free to go, right? That may have been true for TCSO and DPS officers. However, recently I was told something else by an APD officer testifying under oath at a hearing.

Because we had suddenly had a large number of DWI arrests by APD where PBTs were used, I decided to ask this officer some very specific questions about them and why we were suddenly seeing them used on many of the DWI arrests by APD. He quite (proudly) told me that, “the Chief bought them for us,” and that they were “another tool in our investigation.” I then asked this officer if the PBTs were being used to weed-out those citizens wrongfully arrested for DWI by determining if they were under the legal limit and if they were, would they be allowed to go on their way? You can imagine my shock when he specifically told me, “no, I would arrest them anyway.”

This officer’s reasoning was that if a citizen did poorly on the field sobriety tests, he would believe them to be intoxicated regardless of the reading on the PBT. Therefore, if a citizen blew into a PBT and it were under the legal limit, he would ASSUME they were intoxicated via some type of drug and arrest them. Now, he later went on to say that “maybe” he would reconsider if it were low, “because the County Attorney doesn’t really like to prosecute the low ones,” so perhaps he might let a citizen with a low, under the limit reading go.

Folks, the above is from an actual hearing I had. It goes back to the over-zealous enforcement we are seeing on DWI cases. It may technically be legal to drink and drive in Texas (as long as you are under the legal limit), but even if you are under that legal limit and have been drinking responsibly, you can still be arrested and go to jail. I’ll post more later about the other problems with blowing into these PBTs, but suffice to say, do not believe that being offered the chance to do a preliminary, roadside breath test will mean that you will be allowed to leave. Given all of these problems with these PBT devices and human factors that both can create falsely high readings, blowing into one can be a very bad idea.