Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The D.C. Council yesterday overwhelmingly passed emergency legislation to clarify the city’s policy on drunken driving.

In a 9-3 vote, the council passed a bill stating that anyone with a blood alcohol level under .05 is not presumed to be under the influence. Those with a blood alcohol level between .05 and .08 are presumed to be neither drunk nor sober.

The bill now goes to Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who has criticized the legislation as being hastily written and potentially damaging to the District’s drunken-driving laws.

Mr. Williams said he will review the legislation over the next 10 days before deciding whether to sign or veto it.

“I wanted to keep our law so that people who want to come into D.C. to partake responsibly in the vitality of our city can do so,” said council member Carol Schwartz, the at-large Republican who introduced the bill.

The council chose to address the issue after The Washington Post reported last week that a 45-year-old woman was arrested for driving after drinking a single glass of wine with dinner this spring, Mrs. Schwartz said. The woman had a blood alcohol level of .03; a person with a blood alcohol level of .08 or higher is considered legally drunk in every state in the nation.

“I think there was a fear factor that people have coming in,” Mrs. Schwartz said. “People were feeling that if they had one glass of wine that they might get arrested and so we wanted to make sure that that wouldn’t happen.”

Council members Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat; Sharon Ambrose, Ward 6 Democrat; and Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat, voted against the legislation.

Council member Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat and a co-sponsor of the bill, was absent.

John Townsend, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, the region’s largest motorist club, yesterday said the current law needs to be overhauled because it gives police officers the power to arrest drivers with as little as a 0.01 blood alcohol level.

“It posed problems even for the most fair-minded persons,” Mr. Townsend said of the city’s law. “You could be found guilty of drunk driving even though you weren’t drunk.”

However, Mr. Townsend added that AAA wants D.C. officials to move forward carefully.

“While it’s important we take action, we also have to make sure that we don’t handicap the police or send a signal to them that we don’t want them to take action,” he said. “There has to be a period where there should be reflection and input to make sure the new law doesn’t have unintended consequences.”

Mr. Williams noted, during the past two years in the District, 10 persons died in alcohol-related crashes in which the blood alcohol level was below .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,’” the mayor said.

Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey did not return calls seeking comment.

Mr. Mendelson agreed that the council should not write legislation hastily.

“We shouldn’t address this piecemeal,” he said, adding that he plans a public roundtable in the next week to discuss how police handle drunken drivers.

Mr. Mendelson and Mrs. Patterson questioned whether the bill would correct the problem of police arresting persons who are not legally drunk.

“This is a police training issue,” Mrs. Patterson said. “Nothing we have done today will affect what happens with a police officer on the street. What we are doing today only impacts what evidence is introduced in court.”

But council member David A. Catania, at-large independent, said the legislation would discourage officers from arresting those with blood alcohol levels below .05.

Metropolitan Police still would have the discretion to arrest people with blood alcohol levels of .05 to .08, if an officer thinks they are impaired.

They could be considered intoxicated if there is other evidence, such as field sobriety test results. Those with levels below .05 would not be arrested for DUI alone.

• Jim McElhatton contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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