The D.C. Council voted yesterday to relax the city's "zero tolerance" drunken driving law, which allows drivers to be prosecuted for minimal amounts of alcohol in the bloodstream.
D.C. law gives police the authority to arrest drivers with blood alcohol levels above .01 but below .08, the level at which a driver is considered legally intoxicated in the District.
The council voted 9 to 3 for emergency legislation under which drivers with less than .05 blood alcohol would be presumed to be not intoxicated. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who called the bill "hastily written,'' has 10 days to decide whether to veto it.
Council members introduced the measure after news reports highlighted cases in which drivers were arrested after drinking as little as a glass of wine. Members said they were worried about a drop-off in business for District bars and restaurants and concerned that the city's law was becoming a national joke.
"D.C. is once again open for business," said council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), principal author of the legislation. She said visitors "can come in and have a glass of wine and not be harassed or intimidated."
The changes would place alcohol levels from .05 to .079 in a "neutral zone" that would require other factors, such as sobriety field tests, to establish a driver's impairment. The changes would bring District law in line with that of Virginia, Maryland and other states.
Three members voted against the measure, saying it was put together hastily and would not address the core problem of police officers' abusing their discretion.
"We are only addressing what happens in court," said council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who voted against the measure. She said the key problem is officer training.
Also voting against the emergency measure were council members Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) and Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6). Mendelson said the council was rushing through complex legislation that might create more problems than it fixes; Ambrose said she was not convinced that the problem was so severe and widespread that it needed immediate action.
If Williams approves the temporary legislation, it will be in effect for 90 days. The council must act again to make the changes permanent.
Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), one of the measure's co-sponsors, was absent.
Before yesterday's vote, Williams wrote the council a letter in which he questioned the need to change the law and said police are "not unfairly targeting drivers who have a drink at dinner." After the vote, he issued a statement that criticized the council's action.
Williams noted that six people in the District died last year in alcohol-related crashes in which the driver's blood alcohol level was less than .08.
"The fact that people are dying on the road is reason enough for us to think long and hard about undoing years of federal and local public safety messages that stress: 'Don't Drink and Drive,' " Williams wrote.
Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), whose district includes bars and restaurants in Adams Morgan and along U Street NW, said the council's action was urgently needed.
"We need to send a clear and unequivocal message that you can come to the District of Columbia, have a drink and not end up in the slammer," Graham said.
Schwartz said her office has been inundated with calls, letters and e-mails since The Washington Post published the story last week 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. Her blood alcohol level was .03.
Members said they are concerned that the story was making headlines across the country and portraying the District as the last refuge of Prohibition. Ambrose said she attended a wedding in Maine this weekend and was teased about it. Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) said participants at a recent business meeting were jokingly warned not to have a glass of wine lest they be carted away.
"The press is killing us," Orange said.