Drunken Driving Not a Nos. Game on Hill

Posted October 19, 2005 at 6:46pm

As the D.C. City Council and Mayor Anthony Williams (D) continue to negotiate legislation this week to establish new blood alcohol standards for the city’s drunken driving policy, the Capitol Police said they are more concerned with driver safety than any numbers game.

As one Capitol Police officer put it Wednesday, “You can’t put a number on someone safely driving a vehicle.”

After recent news reports prompted an outcry against D.C.’s “zero tolerance” drunken driving law, the City Council passed emergency legislation Tuesday to ease regulations so that a driver with a blood alcohol level of less than .05 would be presumed not to be intoxicated.

And while the legislation could still be vetoed by Williams, the Capitol Police, who operate under the same D.C. codes as the Metropolitan Police Department when it comes to patrolling the streets, will be required to comply with the new law.

When it comes to policing Capitol Hill, dealing with alcohol-impaired drivers is a routine part of the job. While the last time the Capitol Police conducted a specific drunken driving checkpoint was more than two years ago, in fiscal 2005 the Capitol Police made 93 driving under the influence arrests and 245 driving while intoxicated arrests, accounting for about 24 percent of the 1,406 total arrests made by the force that year.

“It’s never been an issue as to whether a person has had one drink, two drinks or three drinks. It’s about driving behavior,” Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer said of the department’s drunken driving policies. “We’re not using speed cameras or red light cameras, we have actual officers out in the field using their discretion.”

Gainer noted that in the past three years there have been no alcohol or driving-impaired fatalities on the grounds within his department’s jurisdiction.

“The No. 1 priority of the U.S. Capitol Police is the protection of Congress, the staff that works here and its visitors,” Capitol Police spokeswoman Jessica Gissubel said Wednesday. “Anyone who has visited the Capitol is aware that thousands of people traverse the Capitol complex on a daily basis, it is our job to ensure that they can do it safely.”

Gissubel explained that the department works to train every officer in its patrol division in the administration of the Standardized Field Sobriety Tests program, a set of nationwide procedures whose standards are set by the Department of Transportation. These tests could be used at any routine traffic stop where drinking and driving is suspected to assess a driver’s level of impairment using balance, eyesight and walking tests.

If, based on the training, an officer determines that a driver exhibits impairment, he or she may be placed under arrest and transported to a Capitol Police facility, where one of a handful of Capitol Police officers specifically trained in using an Intoxilyzer breath-testing machine would then ask the driver to submit to such a test.

Among the city’s varied law enforcement agencies, the Capitol Police facilities are known to be among the best-equipped when it comes to handling drunken-driving arrests, Gissubel said.

The Metropolitan Police Department, the Secret Service Uniformed Division, the U.S. Mint Police, the Federal Protective Service and even the FBI all routinely make use of the Capitol Police Department’s resources for drunken-driving arrests. Some of those agencies even participate in the Capitol Police’s internal SFST training programs.

“Many different agencies prefer to use our site because they know it’s up and running at all times and all hours,” Gissubel said. “We are a central location in the city and it is not costly to maintain the equipment.”

Based on the outcome of the Intoxilyzer breath test, it is then determined whether to charge a driver with driving under the influence or driving while intoxicated.

In the District, as in many states, .08 is considered to be the level at which a driver is legally intoxicated. While drivers with a blood alcohol content below .05 would be presumed not to be intoxicated under the new legislation passed on Tuesday, alcohol levels from .05 to .079 would be in a neutral zone where other factors, including SFST results, could be used to establish a driver’s impairment level.