A proposal by D.C. Council member John Ray (D-At Large) to revoke the licenses of first-offender drunk drivers in the District has drawn fire from city police officials who said such punishment might prevent offenders from seeking treatment.
Police officials, supporting a competing proposal backed by Mayor Marion Barry, testified before a D.C. Council committee Thursday that existing drunk driving laws can be strengthened more effectively by expanding police powers to arrest without a warrant, establishing mandatory preliminary breath-testing for suspects and increasing fees and fines.
Capt. David P. Baker, commander of the traffic enforcement branch, said that first offenders can be effectively handled through court "diversion" programs that include alcohol abuse education, enrollment in Alcoholics Anonymous and psychotherapy.
Ray disagreed, asserting that revocation of a first offender's driver's license is the only way to deter drunk driving. "I have a view that as long as someone can hold on to their license . . . it's not going to make much difference," he said.
The debate over ways to strengthen the city's drunk driving law came at a public hearing held by the council's Judiciary Committee. A representative of Mothers Against Drunk Driving spoke in support of both proposals and specifically embraced provisions that would authorize victims of drunk driving accidents to file compensation claims without paying a filing fee.
Ray told the committee that Barry's plan does not go far enough to revise current law, which now provides for first offenders to take education courses or undergo treatment while keeping their licenses. Under Ray's legislation, which was cosponsored by five other council members, people convicted of driving while intoxicated would lose their license for at least six months and pay a fine of at least $500. After the fourth offense, a driver's license would be revoked permanently.
Police officials recommended that the Ray bill be altered to limit revocation in the most severe cases to 10 years. Baker testified that some form of permit revocation is a good deterrent, but that raising fines "would diminish the government's ability to deal effectively with first offenders."
He also said that increasing those penalties past their current $300 maximum would give first offenders the right to demand a jury trial that could slow prosecution and tie up the court calendar.
Police officials reported that alcohol-related deaths have dropped in the District from 37 in 1983 to 10 last year.