Council Hastens To Revise DUI Law

Tom Cain  tends to his customers, including Bob Montcalm, center, at the 51st State on Pennsylvania Avenue NW in the West End.
Tom Cain tends to his customers, including Bob Montcalm, center, at the 51st State on Pennsylvania Avenue NW in the West End. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Brigid Schulte and Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 15, 2005

D.C. Council members, swamped with irate calls and threats to boycott D.C. bars and restaurants, introduced emergency legislation yesterday that would override the police department's controversial and little-known zero-tolerance policy for drinking and driving.

"We need to remedy this immediately," said council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), who is running for mayor.

Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), another mayoral candidate, called the current situation "absurd."

D.C. police have said that District law gives them the authority to arrest drivers with blood alcohol levels above .01.

Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), a sponsor of the emergency legislation, said the measure no longer would allow that unless there was evidence of significant impairment.

"I just want to make sure that we clarify what our intent is. And our intent is certainly to get people who are intoxicated off our roads," she said. "But our intent is not to intimidate people who may have a glass of wine."

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who represents Georgetown, said he has been bombarded with calls from restaurants, bars and constituents asking, "What kind of lunacy is this?"

"This has put the fear of God into people," agreed council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who represents Adams Morgan and the U Street bar and club district.

"Has D.C. Gone Dry?" the 600-member Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington asks on its Web site. Lynne Breaux, the group's executive director, said that restaurant owners are concerned about business falling off and that "incredulous" members of Congress who were unaware of the zero-tolerance policy have been calling to complain.

Schwartz said her office has also been inundated with calls, letters and e-mails since The Washington Post this week published the story of Debra Bolton, a 45-year-old energy lawyer and single mother of two who was arrested in the District and spent five months fighting a charge of driving under the influence after drinking one glass of wine with dinner. She was stopped, handcuffed and put in a jail cell for several hours after she pulled out of a parking garage in Georgetown without realizing that an attendant had turned off her automatic headlight feature. Her blood alcohol level measured .03.

"We have a very booming night life in the city with wonderful restaurants, wonderful bars, wonderful nightclubs. We want people to partake of those things -- responsibly, of course, when it comes to driving," Schwartz said. "But we certainly don't want them to feel that they can't have a glass of wine and feel that they can be intimidated in any way by anybody."

According to the D.C. Code, a driver with a blood alcohol level of .08 or above is presumed intoxicated and may be arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated. Every state has in recent years set the same level -- acting quickly once Congress threatened to withhold highway dollars if they didn't.

In most states, including Maryland and Virginia, a driver with a blood alcohol level of less than .05 is generally presumed not intoxicated. The D.C. Code states, however, that drivers with "less than .03" percent blood alcohol are not presumed not intoxicated -- a provision that makes it easier to prove low blood alcohol cases in court.

The emergency legislation proposed by Schwartz, Cropp and council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) would strike that language from the code. Instead, they propose bringing the District in line with the states and adding language to make clear that drivers with less than .05 blood alcohol are presumed not intoxicated.

Between .05 and .08, is a "neutral zone," Schwartz said, where no presumption about intoxication is made. And blood alcohol content may be considered with other factors to prove a driver's impairment.

Mendelson, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said he asking Chief Charles H. Ramsey for the names of officers who have been making low blood alcohol arrests and asking D.C. Attorney General Robert J. Spagnoletti why Bolton had to come to court four times, only to have the charges against her dropped. "I just think that's harassment of a citizen," he said.

Mendelson said the council needs to act quickly. "We not only need to straighten this out," he said, "but we need to assure the citizens that there is some fairness."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company