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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)

At low levels of alcohol, an arrest comes down to an officer's discretion, said D.C. police Inspector Patrick Burke, former head of the traffic division.

Fair, he said, has 15 years of experience and averages more than 100 drunken driving arrests a year and is well qualified to make the call. In 1998, Fair arrested Marlene Cooke, wife of the late Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, for drunken driving after she piloted her Land Rover through Dupont Circle without the headlights on. She refused a breath test but was later convicted.

"I always say the safe bet, if you drive, is not to drink at all," Burke said. "But even looking from a D.C. tourism standpoint, we'd be killing ourselves if we were saying you can't go out and have a glass of wine with dinner. That'd be ridiculous. So we tell people, you have to know your limits."

Bolton sat in a jail cell until 4:30 a.m. As she left, Fair told her he had given her a warning, not a ticket, for driving without headlights. She walked the few blocks to Wisconsin Avenue NW, caught a cab to her car on K Street and drove across the bridge to Virginia. There, she said, she pulled over and cried for 45 minutes.

Since what she refers to as her "unfortunate incarceration," Bolton has spent hours in D.C. Superior Court and at the DMV and $2,000 so far fighting the DUI charge. Her refusal to submit to the 12-week alcohol counseling diversion program has sent her on a "surreal" odyssey.

Twice, after hours of waiting, prosecutors told her that they had lost her file and that she would have to come back.

On Aug. 22, after four court appearances, prosecutors dropped the charge. But she spent all of September battling the DMV to keep her driving privileges from being suspended for three months.

Corey Buffo, the DMV's general counsel, explained that the agency drops its procedures only after a case goes to trial and is dismissed on its merits. "Our burden of proof is lower" than the Superior Court's, he said. "Not enough evidence for them may be enough evidence for us." Yesterday, the DMV decided not to suspend her privileges and issued her a warning instead.

After so many months, Debra Bolton is just glad it's over. "It's lunacy," she said. "I'm all for limits on drinking and driving. Whatever the rules are, I will abide by them. I just didn't know these were the rules."

These days, Bolton goes out to eat in Virginia. And she keeps a yellow sticky note on her steering wheel to remind her to make sure her headlights are on.

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