DWI Convictions Due to Faulty Breathalyzer Calibration

From the Washington Post:

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. The problem occurred when the officer in charge of maintaining the machines improperly set the baseline alcohol concentration levels, Nickles said.

This is the same jurisdiction where a woman who had a single glass of wine with dinner and a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of .03 was arrested for being under the influence in 2005. The national standard for a DWI arrest is .08, and anyone testing below .05 is presumed not to be intoxicated. The District of Columbia’s standard for arrest was anything above .01 if the officer deemed the driver intoxicated. Public outcry over the strict policy, particularly in a town built on tourism, prompted the D.C. Council to temporarily amend the law. The D.C. Police website still says that police can charge DUI (Driving Under the Influence, not Driving While Intoxicated) for a BAC of .07 or lower.

There is good reason to question the foundation of DWI laws and enforcement. Radley Balko makes the case that the federal push for reducing the national DWI BAC standard from .10 to .08 achieved little for public safety in Back Door to Prohibition: The New War on Social Drinking. Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) founder Candy Lightner regrets the no-tolerance direction her organization has taken: “[MADD has] become far more neo-prohibitionist than I had ever wanted or envisioned… I didn’t start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving.”