WASHINGTON (AP) — A D.C. councilman directed city officials Monday to speed up work on developing a better and more reliable system for catching drunken drivers, a year after flawed breath-testing equipment called into question hundreds of convictions.

At-Large Councilman Phil Mendelson, who chairs the Judiciary Committee and called for the hearing, says he’s frustrated at the apparent lack of progress.

“I don’t know how we get this program back on track if we don’t have an end date in mind and work back from there,” Mendelson said.

Officials notified defense lawyers in February 2010 that nearly 400 drunken driving convictions over the previous year and a half had relied, at least partly, on inaccurately calibrated blood-alcohol tests.

In about 50 of those cases, defendants have sought to set aside their conviction, said deputy attorney general Robert Hildum, who agreed to report back on the office’s progress and follow a timeline.

The problem with the Intoxilyzer machines was uncovered during a police department audit, and police no longer use breath-testing equipment as part of traffic stops. Roughly two dozen people have sued over the flawed tests, Hildum said.

The absence of accurate machines means the attorney general’s office will rely only on urine tests, eyewitness accounts and other less scientifically valid evidence to prosecute a case. The office said earlier this month that it was dropping an unspecified number of cases because of potentially flawed results.

Mendelson directed the attorney general’s office to set deadlines for rolling out a new program. He said he didn’t understand why police and prosecutors don’t yet have a new system from measuring drivers’ blood-alcohol levels.

It’s not clear what the new system would look like, but Hildum said a Florida lawyer with expertise in drunken driving prosecution has been working with the office and that any new program would require extensive training and can not simply be copied from other jurisdictions and implemented in the city.

Hildum also sought to downplay the seriousness of the problem. He said there was no evidence that sober people have been wrongly convicted of drunken driving, and said the breath tests were just one component of a prosecution.

“The blood scores are only a piece of the evidence, not all of the evidence,” he said.

That argument troubled Mendelson, who questioned whether drivers were being presumed guilty without adequate scientific evidence.

“Are we really doling out due process here? The point you’re making is that a Breathalyzer is just a piece of the evidence, but the other pieces of evidence are not as scientifically based,” Mendelson said.

Two city police officers who patrol bar-heavy neighborhoods and have made hundreds of arrests for drunken driving testified that they felt handicapped in doing their jobs, and said officers were reluctant to pull people over for fear the cases would not be prosecuted.

“If we continue like this, I feel the citizens are at a great risk due to the fact that the officers are not making the arrests,” Officer Ben Fetting testified at Monday’s hearing.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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