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Single Glass of Wine Immerses D.C. Driver in Legal Battle

Debra Bolton spent months fighting a DUI charge. In D.C., a blood alcohol reading of .01 can result in arrest.
Debra Bolton spent months fighting a DUI charge. In D.C., a blood alcohol reading of .01 can result in arrest. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Debra Bolton had a glass of red wine with dinner. That's what she told the police officer who pulled her over. That's what the Intoxilyzer 5000 breath test indicated -- .03, comfortably below the legal limit.

She had been pulled over in Georgetown about 12:30 a.m. for driving without headlights. She apologized and explained that the parking attendant must have turned off her vehicle's automatic-light feature.

Bolton thought she might get a ticket. Instead, she was handcuffed, searched, arrested, put in a jail cell until 4:30 a.m. and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol.

Bolton, 45, an energy lawyer and single mother of two who lives in Alexandria, had just run into a little-known piece of D.C. law: In the District, a driver can be arrested with as little as .01 blood-alcohol content.

As D.C. police officer Dennis Fair, who arrested Bolton on May 15, put it in an interview recently: "If you get behind the wheel of a car with any measurable amount of alcohol, you will be dealt with in D.C. We have zero tolerance. . . . Anything above .01, we can arrest."

Neither the police department nor the attorney general's office keeps detailed records of how many people with low blood alcohol levels are arrested. But last year, according to police records, 321 people were arrested for driving under the influence with blood alcohol levels below the legal limit of .08. In 2003, 409 people were arrested.

Although low blood alcohol arrests have been made in other states in conjunction with dangerous driving, lawyers, prosecutors and advocates of drunken driving prevention said they knew of no place besides the District that had such a low threshold for routine DUI arrests. In Maryland and Virginia, as in other states, drivers generally are presumed not to be intoxicated if they test below .05. Nationwide, .08 is the legal limit -- meaning a driver is automatically presumed to be intoxicated.

Fair acknowledged that many people aren't aware of the District's policy. "But it is our law," he said. "If you don't know about it, then you're a victim of your own ignorance."

Bolton said she didn't know. But defense lawyers who practice in the District do.

"Even one drink can get you in trouble in D.C.," said Thomas Key, a lawyer who successfully defended a client who had a blood alcohol level of .03. "They might not win a lot of these cases or prosecute them, but they're still arresting people."

Not many people fight the charge, said Richard Lebowitz, another defense lawyer, because the District offers a "diversion program" of counseling for first-time offenders.

"If diversion is offered and accepted, there's a guarantee that the charges will be dropped," Lebowitz said. "If you go to court and try to prove your innocence, it's a coin-flip. So most people choose diversion."


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