Greenville man feels breathalyzers put undue burden on users

Published: Nov. 1, 2023 at 8:10 PM EDT
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GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - Vehicle breathalyzers, also called ignition interlock devices, are meant to keep someone with a past of DWIs from turning on a vehicle and making the same mistake again.

You might feel the punishment fits the crime, but one Greenville man wants you to hear his concerns about the technology. He reached out to us, trying to raise awareness about what he feels are flaws in the system, flaws that can drive someone in recovery deep into debt.

Our Investigative Team is exploring how the devices work and sharing more about the pain they can cause for those trying to navigate the system.

A breathalyzer’s voice saying, “An arrival test is required. Pull trigger and hum while blowing into the mouthpiece,” is what Jamie Clifton hears every time he starts his truck.

Clifton has struggled with drug use in the past. He has two DWI convictions in Pitt County - one in 2010 and another in 2013.

“My DWIs didn’t have anything to do with alcohol. They were both drug-related,” he explained.

Regardless, his license is active now. To keep it that way, Clifton needs to use this Monitech breathalyzer for three years. It detects alcohol levels.

If it were as simple as blowing into it and getting to drive if you’re sober, Clifton would have no complaints. But he says it’s much more complicated.

“There’s been countless times where I have blown in it, and it said I didn’t,” he explained. “If you fail to do an arrival test, you get charged a $45 fee. You have to pay that within 3 days or they’ll put you in what’s considered a permanent lockout, so your car is basically held hostage until you pay that money.”

On top of that, something as simple as mouthwash residue can show up as a fail. That means Clifton has to wait another five minutes, then retake the test. If he passes, he can drive. But those initial fails are still recorded. Earlier this year, he racked up four of them.

“I got a letter from the DMV stating that my license would be suspended for a year unless I got a hearing,” Clifton said. “The hearing was $450.”

Remember - if you haven’t been drinking, you’ll be able to pass the test five minutes later, like Clifton did, but that means $450 out of his pocket just to explain himself.

Jacob Harding, who does consulting for attorneys and clients who have these devices, says the list of things that can register as alcohol go far beyond just mouthwash.

“So bread is a big one, fruit because we have fructose and you have that amylase as well. Citric acid, that would be in the fruit. Any kind of sugar free products,” he said. “Anything that ends in ‘ol’ is a type of alcohol. So Pine-Sol, Lysol, propylene glycol. If we inhale the scent of colognes, if we inhale alcohol, at some point we need to exhale it.”

Harding says he advises that people either drink water or rinse their mouth out before blowing into the device. This, he says, will get those contaminants out of your mouth.

That’s the same advice the state and interlock vendors give- as they give strict instructions to breathalyzer users about what they should or shouldn’t be exposed to before blowing into their device.

“There is an orientation that the vendor puts on, specific to their device,” said DMV Communications Manager Marty Homan. “These are all conditions that you need to make if you want to be able to drive because of a decision that you have made in the past.”

But for someone in recovery, Clifton argues, the complicated instructions make their uphill climb much steeper.

“There are times where this has… aggravated me and stirred up different emotions, and that, for someone in recovery, can be dangerous because then you get resentment,” Clifton said, sadly, “And that resentment can just boil in you to the point where you relapse and use drugs or drink.”

Trudy Halstead is a substance use counselor in Pitt County.

“You’re just putting other obstacles. Money, which they’re already struggling. When things trigger it, it’s not true,” she said of breathalyzers.

“I feel that if they could get the kinks out of it, it’s a very good system if we could get something for the drug use,” she continued. “I know alcohol is a drug, but for the other types of drugs that we have. That people drive while they’re impaired with the same drugs.”

A company called Monitech makes Clifton’s breathalyzer. They’re one of several. We reached out to them about his frustrations, and they later waived a $45 fee he was charged for failing to take his arrival test - even though he says he actually took it. But they wouldn’t answer our questions about what others in similar situations can do – or if they’re doing anything to ensure devices don’t trigger false “fails” that result in fees.

“No system is perfect; I’m not gonna say this system is perfect, but we have to do the best that we can to protect people on the roadway,” explained Homan.

Meanwhile, Clifton is on his way to taking the device out of his truck forever. But he hopes sharing his story will change the situation for others like him in the future.

“Saving lives is a big deal, and if we can prevent someone from drinking and driving, that can save a life. And so the difference of having technology that can distinguish if someone is drinking or not and allowing them to get behind the wheel of a vehicle is very important,” Clifton said.

A bill passed in the NC General Assembly in 2021 focuses on the problems we’ve talked about. Senate Bill 183 was signed into law in November of that year. It made more people eligible to get help paying for breathalyzers and supports studies looking into how the technology works.

Still, there are many – like Clifton – who feel there’s some work left to do.

WITN asked DMV officials if they’ve looked into breathalyzers that detect drugs other than alcohol, and they said they’d be interested but haven’t seen anything like that on the market.