The Washington Post

D.C. police to resume troubled breathalyzer program on Friday

D.C. police will resume the breath testing of suspected drunk drivers Friday afterg a 20-month overhaul of its breathalyzer program, which stalled when incorrectly calibrated machines were found to be giving faulty readings.

District Mayor Vincent C. Gray made the announcement in a statement Tuesday. The D.C. Council had earlier this year passed a bill authorizing tougher penalties for impaired drivers.

Gray said a $150,000 grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration helped with costs, which include new machines and software.

City Hall officials were unable to say how many machines police would use, but said there are enough for each of the seven patroldistricts, and more for training. The city had 10 breathalyzer machines under the old program.

“Ensuring we are doing everything possible to protect public safety is a priority for this administration,” Gray (D) said in the statement.

An outside consultant discovered in February 2010 that the breathalyzer machines had inflated blood alcohol levels by as much as 20 percent. Nearly 400 people were convicted on inaccurate results, prompting lawsuits and forcing D.C. police to stop using the machines in 2011.

More than two dozen people sued in both D.C. Superior and U.S. District courts.

Attorney Jeffrey L. Rhodes, who represented all but one of the plaintiffs, saidhis clients settled claims out of court, costing the District a total of $136,617. The payouts ranged from $2,000 to $42,000, he said. He said another person who sued using a different attorney also settled, but that amount could not be immediately learned.

While the program had been shut, District police used urine tests and, in some cases, took people to neighboring jurisdiction or the U.S. Park Police for testing.

Gray said in his statement that new safeguards are in place to ensure the new machines are properly maintained and used. A trained police officer will administer the tests, but a representative of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner will oversee the program and the machines’ use, maintenance and certification.

The new penalties, which took effect Aug. 1, keep the legal blood alcohol limit for noncommercial drivers at 0.08. Those convicted of driving under the influence, however, are now subject to fines up to $1,000 and 180 days in jail, up from $300 fines and 90 days in jail for a first-time offender.

Anyone with a .20 blood alcohol level is required to be jailed for at least 10 days, twice what it was before August.

“With the new statute and the new, state-of-the-art equipment, we are now well positioned to combat impaired driving,” D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan said in the statement.

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