Critics Say District's DUI Policy Goes Too Far

Bartender Luis Molina, working the counter at Marshall's Bar &  Grille, on L Street NW in the District, knows about the zero-tolerance rule. D.C. police
Bartender Luis Molina, working the counter at Marshall's Bar & Grille, on L Street NW in the District, knows about the zero-tolerance rule. D.C. police "can be tough," he says. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 13, 2005

Officials with organizations that lobby for safe roads and tough drunken driving laws yesterday criticized the District's zero-tolerance policy toward drinking and driving, saying that they'd never heard of it and that limited police resources should be devoted to those more obviously drunk.

Even D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), who has sponsored legislation to lower the legal limit for drunken driving, said she was not aware that police officers are arresting drivers who have as little as .01 percent blood alcohol content -- less than from drinking a glass of wine or beer -- in their systems. Nor did she think that such a policy was a good idea.

"I think that laws have to be reasonable," she said. "And I do believe that one glass of wine should certainly not an arrest make."

Lon Anderson, public and governmental affairs director for the American Automobile Association's Mid-Atlantic Office, said he planned to work toward putting an end to the zero-tolerance arrests. "This zero tolerance is out of order, out of bounds and outrageous," said Anderson, who said he also had never heard of it. "This means that, Heaven forbid, I could go to a Nats or Redskins game and have a beer and a dog and my career would be over."

The Washington Post reported yesterday that Debra Bolton, a 45-year-old energy attorney and mother of two who lives in Alexandria, was searched, handcuffed, fingerprinted and arrested after drinking a glass of wine with dinner in Georgetown last May. A breath test indicated her blood alcohol level was .03, comfortably below the .08 legal limit at which drivers are automatically presumed intoxicated. She sat in a jail cell for hours and later spent months fighting in D.C. Superior Court before the charge was dropped.

A number of motorists yesterday said they have had similar experiences. One young computer programmer said he spent the night in a D.C. jail on a drunken driving charge even though the breath test registered his blood alcohol content as 0.0 percent.

The zero-tolerance policy requires that police have a reason to pull the driver over in the first place -- for example, for poor driving, or in Bolton's case, for driving without headlights. In Maryland and Virginia, as in other states, drivers generally are presumed not to be intoxicated if they test below .05. In all three jurisdictions, .08 is the legal limit.

Elizabeth Wingo, chief of the criminal section in the D.C. Attorney General's Office, said her office prosecutes cases regardless of blood alcohol level, as long as there is sufficient evidence of impairment.

"We have zero tolerance for drunk driving. It doesn't matter what your blood alcohol level is," Wingo said. "If you blow .02 and officers can tell you're impaired, you'll be arrested for DUI."

The law says people can be found guilty if they drink enough alcohol "to appreciably disturb or interfere with their normal mental or physical faculties."

But D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, in an interview yesterday with WTOP radio, said the department has no policy of getting tough on people who drive below the legal alcohol limit.

"Officers bring discretion to everything they do," Ramsey said, "so there is no order from above saying that every minor infraction of the law must be upheld."

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