The Washington Post

Three years after breathalyzer scandal, D.C. police restart alcohol breath testing

You do not want to end your night blowing into one of these. (Mike DeBonis/The Washington Post)

This is an Intoximeter Intox EC/IR® II.

According to the manufacturer’s web site, it is a “transportable, bench-top instrument featuring fuel cell integration analysis combined with real-time analytical advantages of infrared technology.” It is also, in these parts, a symbol of municipal dysfunction.

D.C. police, you may recall, suspended their alcohol breath testing program in 2011 after doubts were raised about the accuracy of the department’s equipment (manufactured then by another company). The program remained on hiatus until September.

At a news conference Wednesday, Mayor Vincent C. Gray and his top public safety officials sought to put all the drama in the past by demonstrating one of the new machines — calibrated and certified by the city’s new forensic sciences department — and signing into law a package of heightened drunk-driving sanctions.

“I think we’re now are at a place where we can feel proud that we are at the forefront of combating impaired driving in the nation,” Gray said.

The new laws toughen penalties for repeat drunk-driving offenders and those caught with particularly excessive blood alcohol levels. They also establish new, more stringent standards for commercial drivers. In 2012, 12 of the city’s 19 traffic deaths were alcohol-related.

As for the new equipment, Intoximeter machines are now located in three of the city’s seven police districts. About 30 of the department’s approximately 3,900 officers have so far been trained, with dozens more still to come; more than 200 drivers have been tested since the machines went into service, according to assistant police chief Peter Newsham.

Officials also offered an accounting of the fallout from the calibration crisis.

Police and prosecutors from the Office of the Attorney General said the rate of drunk driving arrests and convictions remained relatively unchanged while the breath-testers were out of service, replaced by urine testing and field sobriety tests.

The city also paid out about $368,000 to settle 20 civil cases brought by drivers convicted using faulty breath-machine results. But very few drivers walked away with clean criminal records.

Ted Gest, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said of 400 drivers arrested during the period in question, about 50 challenged their drunk-driving convictions in court. Only two, he said, ultimately had charges tossed.

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.



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