Breathalyzer - Definition, Examples, Cases, Processes (2023)

A breathalyzer is a device used to estimate a person’s blood alcohol content using a breath sample. Although the word “Breathalyzer” is actually a brand name trademarked by the breath analyzer’s inventor, the term has since become a commonly used term to refer to all breath analyzation tests used in the field. Today, breathalyzer tests are commonly used by law enforcement officers during traffic stops when the driver is suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol. The results of breathalyzer tests are not infallible, but in general, the courts accept such evidence of a motorist’s impairment. To explore this concept, consider the following breathalyzer definition.

Definition of Breathalyzer

  1. noun. A device used to measure a person’s blood alcohol content using a sample of his breath.
  2. noun. A brand name breath analyzer.

Origin 1954 Trademark registered by device developer Robert Frank Borkenstein

What is a Breathalyzer

While many people are aware of the instrument, some may be asking themselves, what is a breathalyzer? A breathalyzer is a tool used by law enforcement to determine whether a driver is under the influence while operating a motor vehicle. Breathalyzers are breath analysis testing instruments into which a suspect must blow a stream of air. The device estimates the individual’s blood alcohol content (“BAC”) as grams of alcohol per mL of blood. While the indirect means of testing BAC does not produce perfect results, its results have been proven to be quite accurate and reliable.

(Video) How Do Breathalyzers Work?

History of the Breathalyzer

Though the Breathalyzer was not trademarked until 1954, inventive minds were working on the idea of a non-invasive test for determining an individual’s level of drunkenness as early as 1874, when Francis E. Anstie learned that tiny amounts of alcohol were produced in a person’s breath. In 1927, Emil Bogen wrote a paper on the possibilities of testing for alcohol residue in a person’s breath, after conducting a study in which individuals inflated football bladders by mouth to provide a sample for the test.

That same year, a chemist named William Duncan McNally invented a device that detected chemicals in the breath. McNally’s device had breath moving through chemicals suspended in water, causing the water to change color. The device was intended for use by housewives to test the drunkenness of their husbands after a night out with the boys.

The first breath analyzer that could practically be used at the roadside, called a “drunkometer,” was developed in 1931 by Rolla Neil Harger of the Indiana University School of Medicine. This device captured an individual’s breath in a balloon inside the machine. The breath sample was then passed through a solution of acidified potassium permanganate, which changed color if there was alcohol in the breath sample.

In 1954, Robert Frank Borkenstein, an Indiana State Police captain and professor invented the first known breathalyzer. This device used chemical oxidation to determine the alcohol content of a person’s blood. The device was patented on May 13, 1954. In 1967, Tom Parry Jones developed the first electronic breathalyzer instrument.

Breathalyzer Test

A breathalyzer test is often given after a suspect is made to perform a field sobriety test. It works by having the suspect exhale into the device, which measures the amount of ethanol present in the breath. An electric current is produced and measured by a microprocessor, then displays the results. Breathalyzer tests, and their acceptance as evidence in court, are regulated by each state, though there are certain general requirements concerning their use. In order for the results of a breath analyzation test to be admissible in a court, these requirements must be met:

(Video) Chemistry of Breathalyzers

  • The breathalyzer device must be on a list of acceptable devices as specified by state guidelines
  • The breathalyzer device must be properly maintained and checked for accuracy periodically
  • The individual administering the test must be certified to use that breathalyzer model
  • The suspect must not have eaten, smoked, vomited, or drank hot or cold liquids immediately before the test is administered
  • The test must take at least two measurable readings that produce results within .02 percent of one other to show the breathalyzer accuracy

Breathalyzer Accuracy

The breathalyzer is the most commonly used test to determine a person’s blood alcohol content when it comes to DUI/DWI cases. A breathalyzer test is not as accurate as a blood test, but the results are typically regarded as accurate if the test is administered properly. However, there is some controversy among scientific and medical professionals concerning breathalyzer accuracy as some experts have come forward to debate the issue.

In 1985, Dr. Michael Hiastala, Professor of Physiology and Biophysics at the University of Washington, expressed his opinion that breath testing is not an accurate method of measuring blood alcohol content (“BAC”), as there are too many variables at work. One study has shown that breath alcohol test readings may vary 15 percent from the subjects’ actual blood alcohol levels. Regardless of the controversy concerning breathalyzer accuracy, tests are still used in the United States to determine whether an individual is driving under the influence.

Refusing to Take a Breathalyzer Test

In all states, driving is a privilege, not a right. Because of this, the courts can revoke a person’s license for refusing to take a breathalyzer test when it is suspected he is endangering others by driving under the influence of alcohol. In the U.S., “implied consent laws” state that, by taking advantage of the privilege of driving, the driver has automatically given consent to have his blood alcohol content tested. This means that the individual has given up his right to refuse such a test, and if he does, he surrenders his driving privileges.

Most states suspend the license of a driver for refusing to take a breathalyzer test or blood alcohol test for up to 12 months. Any driver with a prior DUI conviction may have his license suspended even longer for refusing to take a breathalyzer test. In some states, refusal to submit to a BAC test can result in fines and/or jail time.

It should be noted that results from a breathalyzer test are not absolutely required for prosecution. The state’s prosecutor may charge an individual with DUI, and proceed with prosecution based on other evidence, such as the observations of the law enforcement officers, results of field sobriety tests, and testimony of witnesses.

(Video) Breathalyzer | Principle | Types | mechanism | detection of alcohol

For example:

Tammy is driving home after drinking beer all afternoon with her friends. When police stop her, Tammy fails a field sobriety test, being unable to engage in the simple tests of coordination and reasoning. The officer asks Tammy to take a breathalyzer test, but Tammy adamantly refuses. In Tammy’s state, there is no warrant process for obtaining breathalyzer tests. Tammy is arrested and later charged with driving under the influence.

At trial, although no blood alcohol content data is available, the prosecutor provides testimony of the police officers who stopped Tammy for driving erratically, and who administered and witnessed the field sobriety test. In addition, the prosecutor introduces testimony from two employees of the bar where Tammy and her friends were drinking, as well as another person who witnessed Tammy’s drunken driving. In this case, the breathalyzer test results are not strictly necessary, as there is plenty of evidence to convict Tammy of DUI.

Warrant for Breathalyzer Test

Because many intoxicated drivers, in an attempt to avoid self-incrimination, refuse to take a breathalyzer test, some states have adopted a process of issuing warrants for law enforcement to perform the test, taking away the suspect’s right to refuse. Modern technology makes it possible for law enforcement officers to obtain warrants electronically on their mobile devices, eliminating the possibility that the suspect will sober-up before an actually paper warrant could be obtained. Once a warrant has been issued for a blood alcohol test, refusal to provide a sample is subject to an additional criminal charge for contempt of court, and usually results in the forced drawing of a blood test.

Portable Breathalyzer

The invention of the portable breathalyzer has made it possible for people to test their own breath alcohol content (“BrAC”) to determine whether they can legally drive. The market has become saturated with portable breathalyzers designed for at-home use. Portable breathalyzers come in all shapes, sizes, and prices. Some are more accurate than others, and boast a higher price tag. A few tester models are even compact enough to fit on a keychain, and can be used with a smartphone app.

(Video) Failure to Provide a Specimen of Breath | Traffic Loophole Series e.1 | BlackBeltBarrister

From a legal perspective, law enforcement and legal professionals recommend not relying solely on the results of a portable breathalyzer test, as driving while intoxicated at any level is dangerous.

How to Beat a Breathalyzer Test

It is never a good idea to drink and drive. Most people are aware of this, but many try to “sober up” before sliding behind the wheel. There are many myths suggesting how to beat a breathalyzer test, many of which are bizarre to say the least. Although countless websites, books, and blogs claim to offer the answer to how to beat a breathalyzer test, the only true way to sober up, and reduce the BAC level, is to let enough time pass so the alcohol can leave the bloodstream. Drinking strong coffee, slamming an energy drink, or chewing gum has no effect on BAC.

Some of the myths focus on “tricking” the breathalyzer test, rather than actually reducing BAC. These methods, such as sucking on a penny, or eating a handful of breath mints however, and are reliable solutions for people asking themselves how to beat a breathalyzer test. This is because the breath used to measure BAC comes from deep in the lungs, not from the mouth, and have nothing to do with the odor of a person’s breath, but actual alcohol in the breath. Passing that air through a minty-fresh mouth simply doesn’t work.

Legal Blood Alcohol Content Levels

The DUI laws of each state vary, though all have agreed on the maximum blood alcohol level considered to be legal. Even if a person does not feel the effects of the alcohol he has been drinking, his blood alcohol content may be over the state’s legal limit. The legal BAC level is under .08 percent, though a commercial driver may be prosecuted for DUI at a level of .04 percent or higher. A driver under the legal drinking age of 21 years may be charged with DUI for even a minute BAC. Punishment for driving with a BAC over the legal limit varies by state, as well as by the specific circumstances, whether anyone was injured or property damaged, and whether the individual has prior DUI convictions.

Breathalyzer Tests Suspended Pending Investigation

In April of 2015, prosecutors in several Massachusetts counties, including Middlesex and Essex counties, suspended the use of breathalyzers by law enforcement officers. The suspension of use was the result of concerns being raised about whether the tests were being administered properly, whether the machines had been properly calibrated, and the lack of reliability in these circumstances. With the possibility of people being convicted due to faulty tests, the Executive Office of Public Safety was called in to investigate.

(Video) How to Use the Breathalyzer Dräger Alcotest® 5820

The Executive Office of Public Safety issued a report in Many 2015, stating that about 150 of the 40,000 test results reviewed should have been deemed invalid. The report also discussed the requirement for police officers to calibrate their breathalyzer devices to operate in a specified range. After the report, the Executive Office of Public Safety began working closely with various District Attorneys to identify defendants who were convicted for DUI/DWI due to a breathalyzer test operator error. Many defense attorneys also began looking back into old cases to determine whether their clients had been wrongfully convicted.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Consent – To approve, permit, or agree.
  • DefendantA party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Intoxicated – A state in which an individual’s normal ability to act or make reasonable decisions is inhibited by drugs or alcohol.
  • JurisdictionThe legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.


What is the description of breathalyzer? ›

A breathalyzer or breathalyser (a portmanteau of breath and analyzer/analyser) is a device for estimating blood alcohol content (BAC), or to detect viruses or diseases from a breath sample.

What are the methodologies of breathalyzers? ›

There are two distinct types of active breathalyzer devices: preliminary breath tests (PBTs) and evidential breath test machines. Both PBTs and evidential breath tests used by law enforcement officers generally utilize different technology than personal active breathalyzer machines that individuals purchase.

What is a breathalyzer quizlet? ›

What is a breathalyzer? 5. Measures the blood alcohol in the person breath, because it gets absorbed through the mouth, throat and the stomach.

What is the basis of a breathalyzer test? ›

As the driver breathes out, the device continuously monitors the expired air using an infrared cell. The concentration of ethanol climbs as expiration continues, and when the level of ethanol stabilises, the sample of breath is analysed.

What are the two types of breathalyzers? ›

You'll very quickly run up against two different types of alcohol breathalysers: those that use a semiconductor sensor and those that use a fuel cell sensor.

What is a Breathalyzer called? ›

The Breathalyzer is, however, the name for just one type of breath test device. Other types exist with different names, such as Intoxilyzer and Alcosensor, and the device itself has evolved over time since its creation in the 1950s by a police captain in Indiana.

What is the most common method of testing an individual's BAC? ›

There are a number of ways to test an individual's BAC. The most common method used by law enforcement officers is the breath testing device, which measures the alcohol level in the breath from the lungs. BAC can also be determined by drawing blood and measuring the amount of alcohol in the blood itself.

What is the most common method of testing BAC? ›

The BAC breath test is the most common method used by police officers to estimate blood alcohol content. This test uses breathalyzers which are lightweight, portable breath analysis devices that provide a quick result in the field.

How does a breathalyzer work chemically? ›

A fuel cell measures alcohol content by creating a chemical reaction that oxidizes the alcohol in the breath sample and produces an electrical current. The more alcohol that is oxidized, the greater the current. The current is measured to determine the subject's BAC.

Why do police use breathalyzer? ›

A police officer will administer a preliminary breath alcohol test as a matter of routine if they reasonably believe a person was driving, attempting to drive or in charge of a vehicle at the time of an accident on a road or other public place.

Does a breathalyzer detect drugs? ›

Most drivers are familiar with the concept of a breathalyzer for alcohol-based driving offenses, but marijuana cannot be detected this way. Thus, police officers and other officials must either conduct a field sobriety test or get a blood test to determine if someone is under the influence of marijuana.

Does a breathalyzer measure drugs? ›

Although your car breathalyzer interlock device cannot detect marijuana in your breath, it can detect the presence of smoke. Blowing smoke into the breathalyzer can lead to a lockout and penalties. Remember, you are responsible for every breath positive sample registered in your device, regardless of the source.

What factors can affect the accuracy of a breathalyzer test? ›

Unfortunately, because the thinking is that these tests are infallible, most police officers and prosecutors will trust them implicitly.
5 Factors That Can Distort Breathalyzer Test Accuracy
  • The Breathalyzer Itself. ...
  • Calibration of the Test. ...
  • Single Use Testing. ...
  • Medical Conditions. ...
  • Breathing Patterns.
Oct 1, 2018

How long does a Breathalyzer detect alcohol? ›

Breathalyzers are the most common device used by law enforcement and other agencies to detect the recent consumption of alcohol. Because there is residual alcohol left in the body that is not fully metabolized, breathalyzer tests are able to detect alcohol in a person's system for up to 24 hours after consumption.

Why must a breath alcohol testing device be in calibration? ›

This is very important as regular breathalyser calibration maintains the instrument's accuracy. A breathalyser reads the alcohol content in your breath, and, similar to other gas detection instruments, over time the breathalyser looses its accuracy in reading.

What are the two most common tests for alcohol? ›

The three most common methods for testing BAC are breath, blood, and urine tests. Many states require a breath test, but some allow you to request a blood or urine test.

What is a positive breathalyzer? ›

The portable false positive breathalyzer test measures the amount of alcohol in your breath, which can be skewed if you have mouth alcohol in addition to any alcohol you exhale from your lungs.

When were breathalyzers first used? ›

The first stable breathalyzer for out-of-lab use was developed by Rolla N. Harger in 1931 and named, hilariously, the drunkometer. This early breathalyzer functioned very differently from modern ones: it relied on a colour change due to a reaction between alcohol in the breath and acidified potassium permanganate.

What are the 4 factors that determine a person's BAC? ›

How is Bac Determined?
  • the number of drinks consumed.
  • the length of time in which they were consumed.
  • a person's weight.
  • the type of drinks consumed & whether food was consumed at the same time.
  • alcohol tolerance.
Nov 12, 2015

What are five factors that determine BAC? ›

  • Amount of Alcohol & Speed of Consumption. The more alcohol and/or the shorter the time period, the higher the Blood Alcohol Content (BAC).
  • Biological / Genetic Risk. ...
  • Ethnicity. ...
  • Gender. ...
  • Body Size and Composition. ...
  • Stomach Content. ...
  • Dehydration. ...
  • Carbonated Beverages.
Oct 16, 2019

How do you measure alcohol content? ›

A hydrometer is a tubelike instrument brewers can use to help calculate the alcohol by volume (ABV) percentage of their beers. An alternative to using the hydrometer is a refractometer, another simple instrument that can be used to measure concentration of substances dissolved in a liquid.

How do you test for alcohol in system? ›

There are many different ways to measure the alcohol content in your body. It can be measured through a blood test, a urine test, a saliva test, and even through your breath.

What is the most important factor in determining your BAC? ›

Percentage of alcohol in a drink – the higher the percentage the higher the BAC. The type of alcohol – fizzy drinks are absorbed more quickly. The container size – it is the number of standard drinks not the number of glasses that determines BAC. One glass may contain several standard drinks.

What type of reaction is used in a Breathalyzer? ›

Principle: The breathalyzer is a redox reaction. When the potassium dichormate reacts with ethanol it loses an oxygen atom (gets reduced), going from the orange dichromate to the green chromium sulfate. At the same time dichromate is being reduced, ethanol gains an oxygen atom (gets oxidized), forming acetic acid.

How does alcohol stay in your system for a Breathalyzer? ›

Alcohol detection tests can measure alcohol in the blood for up to 6 hours, on the breath for 12 to 24 hours, urine for 12 to 24 hours (72 or more hours with more advanced detection methods), saliva for 12 to 24 hours, and hair for up to 90 days. The half-life of alcohol is between 4-5 hours.

When can police request a breath test? ›

A police officer can ask you to take a roadside drink or drug test where they reasonably believe that you were driving or in charge of a vehicle that has been involved in an accident, whether or not another vehicle was involved.

How do cops know you're drunk? ›

The officer will be looking to see if the driver has bloodshot or watery eyes, a flushed face, slurred speech or an odor of alcohol. While these are all symptoms associated with alcohol consumption, there are other medical conditions that can also explain these types of symptoms.

Can a breathalyzer detect vape? ›

Even though vaped alcohol doesn't go through the body in the traditional route, it can still be detected on a Breathalyzer test. Remember that these tests involve blowing into the device. They determine a person's blood alcohol concentration (BAC) based on the air in a person's lungs.

Can a breathalyzer tell if you smoked? ›

Studies show that the acetaldehyde concentrations in the lungs of smokers are far greater than for non-smokers. Hence, it can easily appear in a breathalyzer test. Hence, if you are a smoker, your breathalyzer results can show that you have been drinking, even if you have not been.

Does smoking show up on breathalyzer? ›

How Cigarette Smoking Affects the Breathalyzer. Scientific research has proven that smokers have a higher level of acetaldehyde in their lungs. Even if the smoker is completely sober, the acetaldehyde in a smoker's lungs will show up on a breathalyzer test as if they were drinking.

How much do breathalyzers detect? ›

Finally, these devices need to distinguish acetone from alcohol at specific levels. To pass a breathalyzer test in the U.S., an individual must have a blood alcohol level lower than 0.08%. When blood alcohol levels are above 0.08%, individuals may experience effects of alcohol intoxication such as: nausea.

Do breathalyzers only detect alcohol? ›

If Interlock Devices detect breath alcohol content, can they also detect drugs in someone's system? The short answer is no, because of fuel-cell technology. That's technical lingo for alcohol-specific testing properties in your device.

Can a breathalyzer detect Xanax? ›

Xanax will present itself in a blood test; it will not come up in a breathe exam. Thus, if Xanax appears as a positive result on your blood sample results, you can be properly charged with a Xanax DUI.

Will 1 beer fail a breathalyzer? ›

Is one beer enough to fail breathalyzer? Thus, one 12-ounce can of beer, one 4-ounce glass of wine, or one normal mixed drink or cocktail are all equally intoxicating, and give the same blood alcohol content (BAC) reading on a breathalyzer.

How long will 2 beers show up on a breathalyzer? ›

Because alcohol metabolism is different for everyone, there is no single answer as to how long a breathalyzer can detect alcohol in a person's system, but in general, a breathalyzer can first detect alcohol in a person's system about 15 minutes after it has been consumed and up to 24 hours later.

What foods can make you fail a breathalyzer? ›

Additionally, certain types of food can cause a false positive. This includes foods that contain alcohol but don't have a high enough concentration to make you intoxicated. Fruit, hot sauce, energy drinks, fermented sodas and protein bars can also produce a false positive.

What sensor is commonly used in breathalyzers? ›

Most breathalyzers use either fuel cell sensor technology or semiconductor oxide sensor technology to measure the blood alcohol content (BAC) in a person's blood.

Is a Breathalyzer always accurate? ›

Modern breathalyzers are considered reasonably accurate, but can be error-prone. They're not perfect and can lead to false results when used incorrectly or with interfering factors. Judges in some states threw out over 30,000 tests in one year alone – due to human errors and lax oversight.

What is the purpose of the processing step calibration? ›

The goal of calibration is to minimise any measurement uncertainty by ensuring the accuracy of test equipment. Calibration quantifies and controls errors or uncertainties within measurement processes to an acceptable level.

How long after drinking can you pass a breathalyzer test? ›

In Your Blood: Up to 6 hours. On Your Breath: 12-24 Hours. In Your Urine: 12-24 Hours.

How long will 1 beer show up on a breathalyzer? ›

Generally, a breathalyzer test can test positive for alcohol for up to 12 hours after consuming one alcoholic drink. The average urine test can also detect alcohol 12-48 hours later. If your BAC is 0.08, it will take approximately 5 hours to metabolize the alcohol completely before you can become “sober” again.

How much can you drink to pass a breathalyzer? ›

How much can you drink to pass a breathalyzer? For the average person, it only takes about three or four drinks in one hour to reach a BAC of 0.08. Given the general rule, if your blood alcohol content is at the limit of 0.08, it would go down to 0.065 after one hour.

How long does 1 drink stay on your breath? ›

Alcohol detection tests can measure alcohol in the blood for up to 6 hours, on the breath for 12 to 24 hours, urine for 12 to 24 hours (72 or more hours with more advanced detection methods), saliva for 12 to 24 hours, and hair for up to 90 days.

Can you pass a breathalyzer with a penny? ›

Fact: This urban myth is surprisingly widespread, and also completely false. Placing a copper penny or any other form of currency under your tongue does not affect breathalyzer results whatsoever.

How do you sober up fast for a breathalyzer? ›

There's no fast way to sober up once alcohol is in the bloodstream. The only way to sober up is to wait for the alcohol to metabolize. However, the body can only process a limited amount of alcohol per hour. Meaning if someone takes four shots of liquor in a row, those drinks enter their bloodstream one at a time.

Can I drink the night before a breathalyzer? ›

Alcohol could stay in your breath sample for about 24 hours. One standard drink could result in a positive test for up to 24 hours, depending on your burn-off rate. On the other hand, A urine test can detect alcohol in your system up to 12-48 hours later.

Do breathalyzers detect drugs? ›

If you've been convicted of DUI and ordered to install an ignition interlock device (IID) in your vehicle, you may also be wondering if an ignition interlock device, or car breathalyzer, can detect marijuana. The short answer is no. Current ignition interlock devices are made to detect alcohol and alcohol only.

Can you fail a breathalyzer 24 hours after drinking? ›

A breathalyzer can detect alcohol on the breath for up to 24 hours. The amount of time that alcohol stays detectable on the breath depends on the individual and the quantity of alcohol consumed. The detection time varies with a person's metabolism of alcohol, which is affected by many factors, including weight and age.

How many drinks is .025 BAC? ›

How many drinks is 0.25 BAC? At 180 pounds, a woman would reach a BAC of around 0.25 by consuming ten drinks in two hours.

Can I drive 12 hours after drinking? ›

The advice from the police is clear: avoid alcohol altogether if you plan to drive. Because there is no way to speed up how long your body takes to process any alcohol in your system, there's no fail-safe way to guarantee all the alcohol you have drunk will be gone by the time you wake up the next day.

How many beers is 0.08 alcohol? ›

General Estimates. A 180-lb man may be able to drink 3.5 regular 12-ounce beers in one hour and keep his Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) under the legal limit of . 08%.

Can toothpaste affect breathalyzer? ›

If you've used a product that contains alcohol, the Breathalyzer might detect the alcohol concentration and report a false positive. Products that contain alcohol include toothpaste, aftershave, hand sanitizer, bleach, mouthwash, perfume and cologne. Even spraying bug repellent on yourself can produce a false positive.

Will 2 beers make you fail a breathalyzer? ›

In general, one average drink will not put a driver over the limit of . 08% blood alcohol concentration (BAC). Two regular drinks can be enough to put someone over the limit if the person weighs less than 120 pounds.


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