The D.C. Council will consider a bill Tuesday that clears the way for breath testing by police, a critical component of drunken-driving cases that has been dormant for more than two years.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson highlighted the measure Monday as part of a “fairly busy agenda” that city lawmakers must tackle in their last legislative session before their two-month recess.
The 17-page docket reads like an index of some of the council’s most contentious issues during the past year, including taxicab reform, the reappointment of D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi and whether the Verizon Center should be allowed to install high-definition screens that face the street in Gallery Place.
The council also is expected to confirm three members to the newly created D.C. Board of Ethics, a body that was set up in the wake of scandals that have swirled around city hall since the start of the administration of Mayor Vincent C. Gray.
The re-launch of breath testing should boost the District’s ability to prosecute drunken-driving cases. The timing of the rollout is 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 District’s problems with the tests’ accuracy in early 2010 prompted the Metropolitan Police Department to use more-expensive urine samples - which, along with blood testing, always have been an option - in the meantime.
Mr. Mendelson, a Democrat, said 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.
“There’s a lot of customizing,” Mr. Mendelson said.
The department and Office of the Chief Medical Examiner decided to stick with Intoximeter equipment because “it was determined that the instruments were capable, but the software programming needed to be updated,” MPD spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said.
She said officials also decided to make the medical examiner’s office responsible for the calibration and auditing of the machines “to ensure consistent and accurate tests.”
“The long and thoughtful development of this program, solidified by this legislation and the corresponding regulations, will help ensure the type of attention this program has received from the media is not replicated again,” a report from the council’s Committee on the Judiciary says.
Mr. Mendelson is asking his colleagues to pass the measure on an emergency basis, so new regulations and penalties contained in the bill can take effect before the breath testing begins again in August.
Council member Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, also said time is of the essence to pass an emergency bill Tuesday that allows Washington Wizards and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis to place digital screens on the arena in time for the teams’ start of the 2011-2012 seasons.
Critics of the plan say the screens will mar the neighborhood and views of nearby historic buildings. Yet objections to the plan have not reached the fevered pitch of controversy surrounding a bill to reform the city’s taxicab industry.
Cab drivers protested Monday near the John A. Wilson Building for the second time in a week, holding up signs that decry Mr. Gray and council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, for proposing the reforms contained in a bill before the council on Tuesday.
The drivers have said they do not oppose some reforms, such as the installation of credit-card readers in all cabs, but they do not like the costs associated with cab upgrades, the government’s ability to decide which vendor can issue the equipment and a GPS tracking system that drivers equated with government-backed spying.
The council also will weigh in on a $34.9 million contract with Verifone to install new meters, credit-card readers and TV screens in the city’s cabs. Mr. Gray announced the deal Thursday.
“My understanding is it’s gone through the procurement process,” Mr. Mendelson said, responding to questions about its immediate consideration by the council. “I wouldn’t agree that it’s been rushed.”