D.C. to resume breath testing of suspected drunken drivers

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The District will resume breath testing on Friday of motorists suspected of drunken driving, reviving a critical investigative tool that has been dormant for more than two years amid questions about its reliability.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s office said a $15,000 federal grant helped the city develop new software for its Intoximeter instruments under the guidance of the D.C. Office of the Attorney General and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Since early 2010, the Metropolitan Police Department had been forced to use urine tests — which, along with blood tests, had always been an option — to test for driver intoxication during the suspension of its breath-testing program.

The re-launch of breath testing should boost the District’s ability to prosecute drunken-driving cases. The timing of the rollout is roughly consistent with testimony Chief Cathy L. Lanier provided the council in February, when she said the program would be up and running in about six months.

The city decided to stick with Intoximeter machines because “the instruments were capable, but the software programming needed to be updated,” an MPD spokeswoman said in midsummer. The chief medical examiner’s office is charged with ensuring the accuracy of testing through proper calibration and auditing of the machines.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, said in July that after the breath-test program “fell apart,” the city had to go through a detailed, science-based procurement process to set it right again. He led the council in passing the Comprehensive Impaired Driving Act of 2012, which as of Aug. 1 imposes tougher penalties on first-time offenders and more severe penalties for repeat offenders and motorists who chalk up breath-test levels that exceed the legal limit of .08 percent by a large margin.

Problems with the old machines, which were incorrectly calibrated to measure blood alcohol concentration, led to the filing of lawsuits against the District by as many as 30 people who faced charges of driving while intoxicated.

In May, the District agreed to pay $20,000 to four people who challenged their cases, said attorney Jeffrey Rhodes, who handled the cases. The remaining cases have been resolved, though Mr. Rhodes was unable to detail the exact breakdown of results in the cases on Tuesday.

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