On the day the D.C. Council passed emergency legislation to relax the police department's zero tolerance policy and the mayor asserted that officers are not "targeting drivers who have a drink at dinner," Jackson Williams, a former drunken driving prosecutor, waited seven hours for a chance to defend himself in D.C. Superior Court.
He had been arrested in September 2004 under that policy for registering a .02 blood alcohol level after a fender bender with a taxi. He had told the officer he'd had two beers two hours before at the Old Ebbitt Grill.
By 4:30 Tuesday afternoon, Superior Court Magistrate Judge Michael J. McCarthy noted that Williams, 39, now a policy analyst in the District, had been waiting 258 days for the court to hear his case. Then he asked Williams to come back Dec. 7. It will be his sixth appearance.
"I've had alcohol training. I've seen the videos. I've prosecuted these cases," said Williams, a University Park resident who once served as chief DUI prosecutor in Springfield, Ill. "I know they're just wasting their time on people like me."
When Williams was arrested, the D.C. Code said that drivers with a blood alcohol level of "less than .03" could be considered intoxicated and arrested if there is other evidence of impairment. The D.C. Council on Tuesday voted 9 to 3 to change that law, proposing that a driver with a blood alcohol level below .05 be presumed sober. Drivers with levels of .05 to .079 will be in a "neutral zone" and could be arrested if there is other evidence of impairment. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) has 10 days to decide whether to veto the change.
The Department of Motor Vehicles has already suspended Jackson Williams's license for three months because of the charge. And Williams has since moved out of the District to Maryland, he said, in part because of the arrest.
Williams was charged with driving under the influence and operating while impaired, two virtually identical laws. The DUI charge was dismissed in January. He's fighting the other charge by trying to have the law declared unconstitutionally vague because it "encourages arbitrary enforcement."
The policy, he argued, has given officers the ability to make arrests based on "mere alcohol use" rather than evidence of impairment.
But even as the council voted to "clarify" the drunken driving law to prohibit such arrests, the origins of the law and what evolved into the D.C. police policy are murky.
In March 1998, council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) introduced legislation to lower the legal limit for intoxication from .10 to .08.
On July 7 of that year, then-council member Sandy Allen tried to tack an amendment onto the open-container law to lower the level at which a driver could be considered intoxicated from .05 to .03 and below.
On July 13, according to the thick legislative record, Allen again brought up the amendment and asked that it be attached to Schwartz's bill. There was no discussion. And all three committee members -- Allen, Sharon Ambrose and Harry Thomas -- voted in favor.
Allen said in an interview yesterday that she does not remember proposing the legislation. An aide to Ambrose said that neither she nor Ambrose remembers the amendment. Thomas died in 1999.
"I think we were trying to minimize the number of alcohol-related fatalities in the region," Allen said. "It was not my intention to have a zero tolerance policy. That was the police, using their own discretion in how they interpreted the law."
And different police officers have given different explanations of the zero tolerance policy that until recently was spelled out on the department's Web site. Inspector Pat Burke, former head of the traffic division, said the only zero tolerance is for drivers under 21 and for drunken driving, when adults have more than .08 blood alcohol, the legal standard across the nation for intoxication.
But a number of officers have said in interviews or in court testimony that the police policy does not allow for "one drop" of alcohol or that officers can arrest for levels as low as .01.
"Nobody is given that instruction that I'm aware of officially," Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said yesterday.
Yet a number of defense attorneys say they hear it all the time. "I've heard it in police officer testimony in cases where I've seen very, very low blood alcohol content," said Richard Lebowitz. "And I've seen prosecutors accept it."
In May 1998, even before Allen's amendment took effect, Willis Van Devanter of Poolesville wrote a first-person account in the Washington Times about the department's zero tolerance policy. He was arrested in September 1997 for blowing a .03 after having a glass of wine during a dinner with friends.
"Jack Evans came on TV and said we need better police training back then," he said. "They knew."
On Tuesday afternoon, Jackson Williams shook his head and promised to return to court in December. His arresting officer, Timothy Carter, sat in court from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. He said he will collect comp time.
D.C. Council members Phil Mendelson and Jim Graham will be online today at 2 and 3 p.m., respectively, at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline to discuss their votes on emergency legislation to relax the District's drunken driving law.
Staff researcher Don Pohlman contributed to this report.