Utah DUI: Intoxilyzer Vs. Blood Tests

Utah has always taken a tough stance on drunk driving. Back in the 1980s, Utah was the first state to lower the legal blood alcohol limit from .10 to .08. Today, Utah has once again become the toughest drunk driving jurisdiction in the country. The new law lowers the existing blood alcohol limit from .08 to .05. It has now become much easier for the average driver to find themselves charged with DUI in the State of Utah.

Because of this, it’s important for Utah drivers to understand how Utah’s DUI laws and procedures operate. One of the biggest areas of confusion for drivers charged with DUI is blood alcohol testing. Blood testing is critical in every DUI case because the circumstances surrounding the testing can often mean the difference between a conviction and a dismissal of the case.

To begin with, it is not illegal to operate a motor vehicle in the State of Utah with alcohol in your bloodstream. It only becomes illegal when the amount of alcohol in your system exceeds the legal limit set by the State, or when they can establish beyond a reasonable doubt, impairment too great to safely drive a vehicle. It should be pointed out that this legal limit is simply a metric used by the government to establish intoxication. Many people, depending on their tolerance to alcohol, could have a blood alcohol content that slightly exceeds the legal limit and suffer no actual impairment to their driving skills. Despite this fact, they could still be arrested and charged with a DUI because their blood alcohol content allows the authorities to presume that they’re drunk.

Determining A Driver’s Blood Alcohol Level

The determination of a driver’s blood alcohol level is done through testing. In Utah, this involves one or more of two different testing methods – Intoxilyzer and a physical blood test. Both tests measure blood alcohol levels, and the results of the Intoxilyzer and a physical blood test are admissible to show a driver’s blood alcohol content.

The PBT is the testing device that most drivers encounter first in a typical DUI traffic stop.  In a textbook DUI case, an officer observes a driving pattern that is indicative of intoxication – weaving from lane to lane, for example. He or she pulls the vehicle over and questions the driver. Perhaps the driver slurs his or her words or smells of alcohol. If so, and pursuant to the sobriety field test guidelines and training, an officer who suspects that a driver is intoxicated should have the driver perform the usual field sobriety tests: first the nystagmus eye test, then the one-leg stand test, and the 9 step walk and turn.

At that point, if the officer still suspects intoxication based on the outcome of the field sobriety testing, he or she will use a PBT device to determine the presence of blood alcohol. If the PBT shows blood alcohol concentration in excess of the legal limit then an arrest is made. However, the probable cause for the arrest comes from the totality of the officer’s observations – driving pattern, observation, field sobriety testing results and, finally, PBT results to establish the presence of alcohol in the driver’s blood.

The PBT is portable, and is about the length of an average cigar. It is carried around in an officer’s shirt pocket or in a squad car. When the officer is off duty it is stored in the officer’s locker. No one is keeping tabs on it. No one is checking it. Most importantly, no one is calibrating it. This is why the results of a PBT test are only admissible to show the presence of alcohol in the blood, not the actual blood alcohol level.

An aggressive DUI attorney can take advantage of this in a few different ways. First, the majority of DUI traffic stops are anything but textbook. In a majority of DUI cases, the initial traffic stop is not made because the officer observed a driving pattern that indicated intoxication. Instead, the initial stop is made for something mundane, such as a burned-out taillight or an incomplete stop. In other words, it begins as a routine traffic stop. At the time of the stop, the driver was not doing anything to lead an officer to think that intoxication was involved.

Once the stop has been made, the officer may smell alcohol on the driver’s breath or the driver may respond affirmatively when asked if they have been drinking. The officer then has the driver perform the usual field sobriety tests. In some cases, the results of these tests are inconclusive or actually show that the driver likely isn’t intoxicated. The dash-cam video may corroborate this with the officer noting that the driver did well or passed the sobriety tests. At this point, the officer really has no probable cause to suspect intoxication. Yes, the driver has been drinking and he or she may have already admitted as much, but drinking and driving isn’t illegal as long as blood alcohol levels are under the legal limit. At this point, the officer should release the driver.

Nevertheless, in many cases, the officer will still administer the PBT to the driver without probable cause. If the result shows that the driver’s blood alcohol level is above the legal limit, an arrest is usually made even though it is without probable cause.

After The Arrest

An arrested driver is usually taken to the police station where an Intoxilyzer test will be administered to establish blood alcohol levels. The results of the Intoxilyzer are admissible in court because the device is regularly monitored, maintained, and calibrated. In cases where a physical blood test is used to establish alcohol levels, the blood is drawn in a controlled situation. The sample is treated as evidence and is sent to a toxicology lab for analysis. These results are also admissible to establish blood alcohol levels.

However, if the initial DUI arrest was made without probable cause based only on the results of the PBT test, every other piece of evidence that came after the test, including the results of the Intoxilyzer or the physical blood test, can be suppressed. If the subsequent evidence is suppressed, it makes the case against the driver very difficult to prove. The result is almost always a dismissal of the DUI charges.

Don’t Refuse The Test

It should be remembered that under no circumstances should a driver refuse an Intoxilyzer test, no matter how unimpaired they feel or how well they think they did during the field sobriety testing. A refusal of an Intoxilyzer test results in an automatic administrative suspension of your driver’s license for eighteen months in a case involving a first offense. For subsequent offenses, a refusal will result in a three-year suspension. Compare that with a four-month suspension when a driver submits to the Intoxilyzer and blows a .08 or higher. The bottom line is that it is simply not worth it to refuse chemical testing. Cooperate with the authorities, take the tests, and let a competent Utah DUI attorney handle the rest.