D.C. police poised to resume breath-testing of drunk-driving suspects

District police could resume breath-testing suspected drunk drivers next month under a D.C. Council bill, set for consideration Tuesday, that would overhaul the city’s troubled breathalyzer program and stiffen standards and punishment for impaired drivers.

D.C. police stopped conducting breath tests in 2011 after the disclosure that some tests were greatly inflating motorists’ alcohol levels. Under the emergency legislation, police could begin using breathalyzers again next month.

The legislation also imposes strict new penalties on some impaired drivers. Drivers of commercial vehicles would be subject to a 0.04 blood alcohol limit; the current limit for all drivers is 0.08. A driver weighing 180 pounds would near the .04 limit if he or she consumed two drinks in one hour.

The change will help ensure that bus drivers and other heavy-vehicle operators pose less of a safety risk, said interim Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who heads the Judiciary Committee.

“Commercial drivers should be held to a higher standard,” Mendelson said. “If they are driving for work, my expectation is they have no alcohol in them.”

District law generally defines commercial vehicles as weighing at least 26,000 pounds, meaning some residents who rent big moving trucks would be held to the lower limit.

The limit for noncommercial drivers would remain 0.08. But the council also seeks to make life more difficult for anyone who drives over the legal limit.

A driver convicted of driving under the influence would be subject to a fine of up to $1,000 and 180 days in jail. Currently, a first-time offender can face up to a $300 fine and 90 days in jail.

Someone arrested with a 0.20 blood alcohol level would be required to spend at least 10 days in jail, twice the current mandatory minimum. Drunk drivers arrested with a minor in the vehicle would face a five-day minimum sentence.

“We are updating a law that was written in 1925 to bring it into a modern era,” said Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). “We have to make sure people understand — in the District of Columbia, we are not going to tolerate this.”

The legislation is “a good first step” toward guaranteeing that the District is not “a playground for drunk drivers,” said John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA-Mid Atlantic.

The District’s efforts to deter intoxicated drivers have been ensnared in controversy for years. Police must establish a suspect’s blood alcohol level to charge him or her with driving while intoxicated, but they can charge a motorist with driving under the influence or operating a vehicle while impaired without a blood alcohol test. That has led some motorists to allege that they were charged with OWI after one glass of wine, leading to national headlines in 2005.

The program took another hit in February 2010 after an outside consultant discovered that incorrectly calibrated breathalyzers had inflated blood alcohol levels by as much as 20 percent. Nearly 400 people were convicted based on inaccurate breath-test results. The city stopped using the tests last year.

Dozens of drivers challenged their convictions, and in May the District agreed to pay four of them $20,000 plus attorneys fees.

The District purchased new equipment, but the testing program has been on hold pending the revised legislation. City police have instead been using field sobriety tests and urinalysis to make impaired-driving arrests.

Responsibility for overseeing the breath tests — including maintaining the devices and developing policies for their use — would shift from police and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to the Department of Forensic Sciences, created by the council last year.

Kristopher Baumann, head of the D.C. police union, warned that police officers may still be hesitant to use breath tests given past controversy. Several officers faced internal investigations after they tried to speak up about the previous flawed tests, he said.

“A lot of officers are concerned about being involved in these types of arrests,” Baumann said.

A 0.04 threshold for commercial drivers would bring the District in line with Maryland’s requirements, Townsend said. Federal regulations also require interstate truck drivers to abide by a 0.04 alcohol limit.

Allen Silver, a local organizer for the Sheet Metal Workers International Association, said many commercial drivers use their vehicles for purposes other than work and questioned whether it was fair to hold those individuals to a different standard than other drivers.

“It targets them and now they are stuck,” Silver said. “They can’t even go out for a holiday treat with their family.”

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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