That has prompted D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier to order officers to take urine samples from suspected drunk drivers. That is a more cumbersome and expensive way to handle the 120 tests a month the District runs. Urine tests cost police $75 apiece, compared with less than $10 for each breath test.
Drunken-driving arrests for the first quarter of 2011 were down by about 40 percent from the same period last year, according to the police union. Lanier and the attorney general’s office have not attributed that decline to the lack of breath tests. But some frontline officers, who have been responsible for hundreds of arrests in previous years, said the confusion in the system leaves officers hesitant to make arrests.
The District’s breath testing program unraveled in February 2010, when city officials acknowledged that errors in the old analyzers had overstated drivers’ scores in about 400 convictions.
D.C. officials have known since October that the battered breath test operation needed an overhaul, not incremental fixes. That conclusion came from a team of national experts who volunteered to help the city and contacted the attorney general’s office last fall, interviews show.
But questions of how to pay for the rebuilding and who will supervise it have remained unresolved.
A lack of accuracy was not the only weakness exposed by the testing debacle. In regard to manuals, training systems, scientific rigor and quality control, the program came up short of those of other states, the experts said.
In Maryland, Virginia and other states, breath alcohol testing is the responsibility of a centralized forensic science unit. Lanier and the attorney general’s office have asked the D.C. medical examiner’s office — the city’s forensic arm — to run the bulk of the program.
But without more money, more staff and more expertise, the medical examiner has said she is reluctant to take over a broken system.
Neither the attorney general’s office nor the police department could say with precision how the shift away from breath tests has affected enforcement or court outcomes.
Drunken-driving caseloads had been steadily increasing, according to records in D.C. Superior Court. There were 1,391 drunken-driving cases in 2008, compared with 1,707 last year.
But caseloads slowed this year, with 174 drunken-driving cases in January and 135 in February.
Arrests also appear to have slowed in the District, with 155 as of early March, compared with 271 for the same period last year, according to the police union. The police department could not provide comparable statistics.