Ignore the pink elephant in the room

The Washington Post has another story about ordinary citizens arrested in the District with a blood alcohol content below .08. The focus seems to be on this aspect of the article. Consider:

In March 1998, council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) introduced legislation to lower the legal limit for intoxication from .10 to .08.

On July 7 of that year, then-council member Sandy Allen tried to tack an amendment onto the open-container law to lower the level at which a driver could be considered intoxicated from .05 to .03 and below.

On July 13, according to the thick legislative record, Allen again brought up the amendment and asked that it be attached to Schwartz’s bill. There was no discussion. All three committee members — Allen, Sharon Ambrose and Harry Thomas — voted in favor.

Allen said in an interview yesterday that she does not remember proposing the legislation. An aide to Ambrose said that neither she nor Ambrose remembers the amendment. Thomas died in 1999.

“I think we were trying to minimize the number of alcohol-related fatalities in the region,” Allen said. “It was not my intention to have a zero tolerance policy. That was the police, using their own discretion in how they interpreted the law.”

There is clearly a lesson in unintended consequences there and how to better govern a city. This also suggests that citizen oversight is a pretty good idea. Lawmakers are in office through the vote of the people. Not challenging laws that the people find offensive, either through contacting the elected official or at the ballot box, constitutes acceptance. No one can complain 8 years later that no one knew. Ignorance is not an excuse.

But more importantly, I want to focus on the part of the article that’s being overlooked. Consider:

On the day the D.C. Council passed emergency legislation to relax the police department’s zero tolerance policy and the mayor asserted that officers are not “targeting drivers who have a drink at dinner,” Jackson Williams, a former drunken driving prosecutor, waited seven hours for a chance to defend himself in D.C. Superior Court.

He had been arrested in September 2004 under that policy for registering a .02 blood alcohol level after a fender bender with a taxi. He had told the officer he’d had two beers two hours before at the Old Ebbitt Grill.

When Williams was arrested, the D.C. Code said that drivers with a blood alcohol level of “less than .03” could be considered intoxicated and arrested if there is other evidence of impairment.

I obviously don’t know the facts of the case beyond what’s right there (emphasis added) and I know how bad taxi drivers can be, but there is no way I’m going to build sympathy for this case. It requires no leap of imagination for a police officer to link “fender bender” and “other evidence of impairment”. The courts are designed specifically to sort out these situations, which is why people arrested are still presumed innocent. You don’t want to have to deal with this? It’s simple, really. Drink or drive. So forgive me for not feeling the collective outrage pinballing around D.C. this week.

3 thoughts on “Ignore the pink elephant in the room”

  1. Perhaps if Williams had GOTTEN IN that taxi instead of SMASHING IN to it, he wouldn’t find himself in this predicament.

  2. The problem with the law in DC is that “other evidence of impairment” is too vague, and police have been interpreting it too aggressively and too broadly. Fender benders happen all the time when people aren’t drinking–so why should it suddenly become evidence of impairment if someone had a beer or two, and is clearly under the 0.08 limit proscribed by law?
    DC police have been treating /any/ moving violation as evidence of impairment–no matter how minor the violation, and regardless of how little alcohol was actually consumed. Simply *admitting* to a drink seems to qualify as “evidence of impairment” to some cops, and even people who haven’t had anything to drink are harassed with sobriety tests.
    Clearly something needs to be fixed. There’s a reason why all 50 states have a “presumed sober” threshhold–to protect people who have a single drink with dinner from police harassment.

  3. I don’t doubt the law is vague and apply aggressively. Having challenged ridiculous parking tickets in the District before, I know that much is done as a simple revenue-generating scheme. And I have said that if citizens don’t like the law, they should lobby their elected officials to change the law or vote those officials out. There is a reason to have representative government. But this law is 8 years old. Perhaps enforcement has increased recently; I don’t know that for certain.
    My point with Mr. Williams is that he was involved in an accident after drinking alcohol. I leave open the conclusion that the latter caused the former. That’s why we have courts. But anyone who drinks and then drives has altered the orginal agreement of responsible behavior while driving. The individual should understand that he has no right to endanger other citizens on the roads. A police officer in the field has an duty to remove drivers deemed dangerous. Hence, “other evidence of impairment.” If it’s a training issue, fix that. But everyone has the decision to not drive after drinking. That takes care of the problem.

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