D.C. paid out nearly $400K for flawed breath testing system

D.C. Mayor Vince Gray signs legislation authorizing new breath tests and stiffer penalties for drunk drivers. (WTOP/Mark Segraves)

Mark Segraves, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – The District’s flawed breath testing system that was scrapped in 2011 cost taxpayers more than $368,000 in legal settlements and fees.

In 2010, the District’s Attorney General at the time, Peter Nickles, said as many as 400 people could have been wrongly convicted of drunk driving using faulty test results. That resulted in dozens of people returning to court seeking to have their convictions overturned and to sue the city.

According to Ted Gest, a spokesperson for the District’s Attorney General, the city settled 20 cases and paid out $368,293,30. One additional case was dismissed. Gest tells WTOP in an email that most of those convictions were upheld.

“Of the 400 cases originally identified by former AG Nickles as possibly involving incorrect breath tests, only 50 people ever came into court with motions to challenge their cases, and of those, in only two cases was there a court finding vacating a conviction,” Gest wrote.

The disclosure of the settlements comes the same day Mayor Vincent Gray signed legislation authorizing the use of a new breathalyzer system and tougher drunk driving penalties.

At the bill signing ceremony, the District’s current Attorney General, Irv Nathan, said the city had settled all the lawsuits from the bad test results and played down the amount of those payouts.

“In terms of the settlements, I think we’re talking less than 30 cases and we’re talking fairly nominal sums of money,” Nathan said.

As for why so many of the convictions were upheld Nathan said, “When the counts that related to the breathalyzers were set aside, they were still able to uphold the convictions on other counts, on the charges that didn’t rely on the breathalyzer tests. The sentences aren’t as severe when you can’t rely on the breathalyzer test, but it’s still on their record.”

In February 2010, an independent testing firm found the breathalyzer tests used by D.C. police were miscalibrated leading to greatly inflated alcohol levels for many drivers.

Since the findings, D.C. police have used urine and other tests as evidence in drunk driving cases. In 2012, more than 1,400 people were arrested and convicted of drunk driving in the District, at the same time 12 people were killed in alcohol-related traffic accidents.

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(Copyright 2013 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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