Portable breath testers in Whatcom County, Washington

Jennifer Yopp
Justice Innovation Center

Overview and Challenge
Probation officers monitor and evaluate a client’s progress and make recommendations for specialized treatments to help clients fulfill the terms and conditions of their probation. For clients who abuse alcohol, frequent alcohol screening helps clients to recover and protect the community. Probation clients who abuse alcohol may have frequent alcohol testing as part of their probation conditions; portable breath testers (PBTs) are handheld units that measure a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) and are one of the most common tools used for monitoring probationers' alcohol use.

Despite their portability and ease of use, many community corrections agencies do not own their own PBTs and rely instead on local law enforcement agencies to administer breath tests. This request can place a significant burden on law enforcement personnel time. It also means that probationers may not be screened as often as they should be.

For community correction agencies that have PBTs, maintaining the frequently used equipment is not always easy, and agencies report not having the funds to replace PBTs when they break.  

Whatcom County District Court Probation in Washington State supervises adult offenders granted probation by the Whatcom County District Court and five other municipal courts—in Bellingham, Lynden, Everson, Blaine and Sumas. The agency employs 11 probation officers who manage an active caseload of 250 to 300 clients.

Whatcom County Probation adopted PBTs in the 1990s, with concerns for community safety providing the original impetus for purchasing the equipment. Probation officers could detect the smell of alcohol on clients who reported to the office and the department needed a way to screen these clients before they left, as they might drive under the influence and endanger other citizens.  

Technology and operations solutions
PBTs are now commonplace in Whatcom County Probation's day-to-day operations, and the agency has two operating units that are used in the office. On any given day, five to ten clients come to the office for screening as a condition of their probation, and several other clients are randomly screened.

If a client screens positive for alcohol use, the probation officer administers a confirmation test 15 minutes later to determine whether the BAC is increasing or decreasing. PBT results alone are not admissible in court; if a client tests positive and admits to consuming alcohol, he/she signs a form reporting the PBT results, which is then submitted to the court.

If a client denies alcohol use after a positive result from the PBT, the probation officer will administer a urine test, the results of which are admissible in court. The results of both the PBT and urine tests are then forwarded to the court. (The urine test measures EtG, short for ethyl glucuronide, a compound formed after alcohol consumption.)

A client who tests positive—regardless of whether they admit to alcohol use—can leave the probation office when his/her BAC is below 0.02% or if someone else drives.

The department started off with five PBTs—some were kept in the office and others could be taken into the field, for home or court visits, for example. Over time, however, they have attrited due to heavy use. Now the department is down to the two they keep in the office. If probation officers took the PBTs in the field, they would likely administer more random tests. If a probation officer in the field suspects alcohol consumption by a client, law enforcement is contacted to conduct a PBT on site. The probation manager, Peggy Miller, reports that the department's operations are not impeded by the number of units they have.

Outcomes and advice
The biggest challenge the agency has had since implementing the technology is that a lack of certification training and infrequent calibration results in public defenders challenging the validity of the test results.  Therefore, a probationer’s use of alcohol must be confirmed either through admitting to alcohol consumption or having positive EtG results.

The PBTs are a good screening tool. They are the easiest of the alcohol monitoring systems to use and the least expensive. Training is strictly on the job, as the units are simple to operate. Whatcom County Probation has been paying for them out of its own budget, but has not been able to replace units that no longer work. The Washington Traffic Safety Commission has a simple grant process with funds available that may help the probation department to purchase additional PBTs. Whatcom County Probation plans to pursue this resource in the future.

For further information: Peggy Miller, Whatcom County Probation Department, pmiller@co.whatcom.wa.us