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."
Patrick O'Connor, president of Northern Virginia's Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said his group lobbied for years to get all 50 states and the District of Columbia to lower the legal limit for intoxication from .10 to .08. He said the only zero-tolerance law MADD has pushed is for young drivers under the legal drinking age of 21 -- which all 50 states and the District subsequently adopted.
"MADD's position is that you should drink responsibly and if you feel you're impaired, you should not drive," he said. "It's not MADD's position that if you have a glass of wine you shouldn't get into a car."
John Undeland, chairman of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, with members as diverse as Anheuser-Busch and MADD, said his group's members agree that the greatest problems are drivers who are profoundly drunk and those who repeatedly drive drunk. "That's where resource-stretched law enforcement agencies need to focus their resources," he said.
Neither the D.C. police nor Superior Court prosecutors keep detailed records of low-blood alcohol arrests as a result of the zero-tolerance policy. But records do show that several hundred drivers each year are arrested for driving with blood alcohol lower than .08 percent.
This year, Annie Cefaratti, along with Debra Bolton, will be one of those statistics. One Tuesday night in August, she recalled, the 44-year-old real estate agent and Reston resident had a glass of wine with dinner at Sette Osteria, with a big bowl of pasta and espresso. Two hours later, as she drove home in her black Mercedes SUV, she quickly picked up her cell phone to answer her son's call.
The District bans use of handheld phones while driving, and she was immediately pulled over, she said. An officer asked if she'd been drinking. When she said she'd had a glass of wine with dinner, he asked her to get out of the car and put her through a series of sobriety tests. A breath test measured her blood alcohol at .04. She was handcuffed and arrested. Her case was later dropped, she said, because the officer never filed the paperwork. Now, the District's Department of Motor Vehicles wants her to either get alcohol counseling or prove she doesn't need it.
"I'm D.C.-born and -raised. My family goes back six generations here," she said. "And I'm never going to have another drink in D.C."
D.C.'s zero-tolerance policy goes back about seven years. In 1998, at the same time Schwartz introduced an amendment to lower the blood alcohol limit for intoxication from .10 to .08 with much media attention, then-Council member Sandy Allen introduced a provision that lowered to .03 the level that a driver could be presumed impaired by alcohol. Both measures passed.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.