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Law enforcement express concerns over taking away breathalyzer penalties

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Members of law enforcement are concerned about a bill waiting for a vote in a state House committee.

The bill would take away the penalty for drivers who refuses a roadside breathalyzer test.

Bill sponsor, Republican Representative Peter Lucido says the portable breath test, or PBT, is unreliable and shouldn’t be used.

Members of different branches of law enforcement disagree.

The PBT is a roadside test used to check the blood alcohol level of a driver at the side of the road. It’s also used in other instances, but it is generally not admissible in court for a trial. Lucido says that alone should mean the PBT isn’t used.

Bob Stevenson is the executive director for the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police. He says the test is reliable as an initial test to see if someone is drunk.  

Sergeant Matt Williams is with the Michigan State Police. He says the PBT is one tool police officers use to determine if someone is driving while intoxicated. Using the totality of the PBT, Standardized Field Sobriety Tests and other observations, officers will make a decision if they have probable cause to believe someone is driving under the influence. Then, they would be taken to a police station for a test that would be admissible in a trial.

“It is absolutely an essential tool that we use, and with that tool taken away, it could be detrimental both to us, to prosecutors, or to a potential defendant,” Williams said.

Williams said sometimes the Field Sobriety Tests alone are not enough to determine if someone is drinking and driving. Some people can complete the tests well, but still have a blood alcohol above the legal limit. Williams said the PBT also protects those that aren’t drinking and driving from being arrested – like people who are really bad at Field Sobriety Tests that require you to walk a straight line a specific way, among other things.

Right now, if a driver refuses a PBT, and the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the person was driving under the influence of alcohol, the driver would receive a fine and points on their license.

Williams and others are concerned that the bill could essentially render the PBT obsolete. “If we aren’t able to enforce OWI law, we very well could see the number of OWI crashes go up,” he said.

Stevenson argues, “We think to remove the penalty for refusing to take a PBT is not in the best interest of public safety.”

Before becoming the newest Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network, Cheyna Roth was an attorney. She spent her days fighting it out in court as an assistant prosecuting attorney for Ionia County. Eventually, Cheyna took her investigative and interview skills and moved on to journalism. She got her masters at Michigan State University and was a documentary filmmaker, podcaster, and freelance writer before finding her home with NPR. Very soon after joining MPRN, Cheyna started covering the 2016 presidential election, chasing after Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and all their surrogates as they duked it out for Michigan. Cheyna also focuses on the Legislature and criminal justice issues for MPRN. Cheyna is obsessively curious, a passionate storyteller, and an occasional backpacker. Follow her on Twitter at @Cheyna_R