The drunk tank in Fairfax County is filled with sobering reminders of the perils of driving under the influence.
A photograph of a woman whose face was horribly disfigured when she was struck by a drunk driver is taped to each of four tables where police officers interview drivers they have arrested. On each desk is a year-to-date tally of the number of people killed in car crashes in Virginia and Fairfax County. One wall holds unflattering mug shots of celebrities charged with drunken driving: Wynonna Judd, Nick Nolte, Bobby Brown and Glen Campbell.
For the 92 drivers arrested in Fairfax one week last summer -- whose cases were examined by The Washington Post -- the first stop was the drunk tank, the Alcohol Testing Unit at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center.
On many summer and holiday weekends, a line of drunken driving suspects and police officers winds out the room and down the hall, waiting for the Breathalyzer machine, known as the "Intoxilyzer."
Drivers have their mug shots taken, then appear before a magistrate sitting behind a thick glass window like a bank teller.
Most defendants are released on their own recognizance, but they cannot leave until they sober up. They wait in "holding tanks": 18-by-18-foot rooms with three walls of concrete and one of plexiglass. Each room is equipped with a telephone, a few molded plastic chairs and a stainless-steel toilet.
Televisions in the three men's holding tanks are turned to a sports channel; the set in the one women's room is usually a news program. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are turkey bologna or cheese sandwiches on white bread, with a small carton of milk.
The week of Aug. 30 to Sept. 6 was fairly typical for Fairfax County, where law enforcement officials boast of being tough on drinking drivers.
Seventeen of the 92 drivers arrested were women. The drivers were 19 to 70 years old, and half were 30 or older. Most were arrested between midnight and 4 a.m.
Three arrests were on drug charges. Fifteen were repeat offenders.
In a matter of weeks, the defendants appeared in Fairfax County District Court, their cases wedged among other offenses -- from speeding and cracked windshields to defective taillights. Most cases were dispatched within minutes. And the penalties were so uniform that even defense attorneys acknowledged that their representation in court made little difference.
Of the 74 charged as first-time offenders, 11 were not prosecuted or charges were dismissed, and eight others pleaded down to reckless driving. Of the first-time offenders, only eight spent time in jail.
A director of a consumer finance company was stopped after dinner and drinks with a new employee and refused to submit to a Breathalyzer test; he paid $415 in fees and fines, and lost his license for a year. After drinking hard liquor at a nightclub opening, a software engineer for a defense contractor was arrested with a blood alcohol level of 0.14; he paid $465 and had his license suspended for a year. A car dealership executive who drank wine on an empty stomach had a 0.13 blood alcohol content, paid $465 and lost her license for a year. All were given permission to drive to work.
Of the first-time offenders, eight spent time in jail -- those whose blood alcohol levels were above 0.20. Most served two days, their sentences halved for good behavior. Some served only on weekends. Today, more than four times that number would spend time behind bars because of a new law, which took effect July 1, that redefines "super-drunks" as anyone with a level of 0.15 or more, an offense that now requires at least five days in jail.
State officials are anticipating a shortage of cells and staff because they predict that thousands more drivers will be thrown behind bars, then put on probation for at least 12 months.
Pat Bowman, a counselor at the county's Fairfax Alcohol Safety Action Program mandated for those convicted of driving under the influence, ticked off a long list of personal and professional humiliations that her clients have revealed. A sales representative wondered how to entertain business clients when drinking is part of the culture. An active church member was mortified that she could no longer drive to services. A man was chagrined that he couldn't help his wife with an eight-hour drive to North Carolina.
"For some individuals, it's the absolute shame and embarrassment, that feeling of mortification, that they never dreamed of being arrested," Bowman said.