400 Washington D.C. Drivers Wrongly Convicted Of Drunk Driving

Thanks to increasingly strict drunk driving laws, a drunk driving conviction can easily ruin a person’s life. With those kind of stakes you would think that everyone involved in DUI/DWI enforcement would be especially careful about the evidence they use to charge drivers, but according to a recent Washington Post story, this apparently hasn’t been the case in Washington, D.C. for quite some time:

Nearly 400 people were convicted of driving while intoxicated in the District since fall 2008 based on inaccurate results from breath test machines, and half of them went to jail, city officials said Wednesday.

D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said the machines were improperly adjusted by city police. The jailed defendants generally served at least five days, he said. […]

The District’s badly calibrated equipment would show a driver’s blood-alcohol content to be about 20 percent higher than it actually was, Nickles said. All 10 of the breath test machines used by District police were wrong, he said.

Amazingly, this wasn’t a situation where the machines were calibrated incorrectly overnight, the error stretched across months before being discovered and fixed:

The machines have been under investigation by Nickles’s office since February, when an outside consultant working for the city suspected an accuracy problem. […]

The flawed cases emerged after a review of 1,100 prosecutions between September 2008 and February 2010 that relied heavily on breath test results, according to a June 4 letter that Nickles sent to the local trial lawyers association and the public defender’s service.

Despite the major error in calibration, the Attorney General seems convinced that most of the convictions will stand:

Some lawyers who specialize in drunken-driving cases questioned Nickles’s continued confidence in the DWI convictions, with one lawyer, Thomas A. Key, calling it “utter bull.”

“The way the law is written in the District, you cannot bring a DWI without a .08 result,” Key said. “It demands that result to make that arrest. I’d take a case without a score any day and beat that. But once they have that test number in there, it’s a whole new ballgame for a client.”

The breath test alone is enough for a charge of DWI, Burke and Nickles said, and field sobriety tests are not needed to bolster the case.

What makes this situation even more frustrating is the fact that even when correctly calibrated, breathalyzers can demonstrate margins of error of nearly 50% and their initial use in DUI/DWI cases was wrongly justified by a simple decimal point error.

You can read the full Washington Post story here.

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