DWI Arrests at Zero BAC in DC

David J. Hanson, Ph.D.

“You Drink and Drive. You lose” is taken literally by police in the District of Columbia.

A 45 year old lawyer told a DC police officer that she had one glass of wine with her dinner; her breathalyzer test registered a low .03 blood alcohol concentration (BAC). For that, she was handcuffed, searched, arrested, put into a jail cell and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol.

A mistake? An isolated incident? The vindictive action of a single rogue cop? It was none of these.

The arresting officer, Dennis Fair, said in an interview that “If you get behind the wheel of a car with any measurable amount of alcohol, you will be dealt with in DC. We have zero tolerance…. Anything above .01, we can arrest.” That’s not .10 but .01. And people are arrested in the nation’s capital with zero BACs. The DC’s Attorney General says that it’s legal for drivers to be arrested for DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol) with “no registered BAC.” Indeed, DC police do arrest people with 0.00 BAC if they admit to having had a single drink with dinner.

Fair acknowledges that many people are unaware of the police zero tolerance policy. But he says “If you don’t know about it, then you’re a victim of your own ignorance.”

Apparently some members of the DC Council were unaware of the policy as well and have passed an ordinance to prevent it, although the mayor has threatened to veto the measure and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) isn’t pleased with the Council’s action to prevent zero tolerance.

Letters to the Editor of The Washington Post expressed dismay at the zero tolerance policy. One reader asked “Why do we have laws if the police enforce whatever they want to, not the actual statutes? Shall we have ‘zero tolerance’ for speeding, so that a driver going under the speed limit can be stopped, ticketed and thrown in jail?” Another said “I find it absurd and insulting to District residents and visitors that in a city with chronic violent crime and growing gang violence, a police officer would spend so much of his shift on the arrest of a woman whose crime was having one glass of wine with dinner.”

The Washington Times asserts that

Washington is a city with a homicide every other day. It shouldn’t waste time hauling in hundreds of otherwise law-abiding citizens who happen to have a single drink with a meal. Given the D.C. government’s reputation for using fair means and foul to extract revenue from its citizens, this inevitably invites speculation that such zero-tolerance enforcement of drunk-driving laws has, like the spy cameras, little to do with citizen safety, and everything to do with squeezing taxpayers for a few dollars more.

The belief of the head of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), Glynn Birch, appears consistent with that of the District police. He says that if people want to have a drink, they should stay at home and not drive. However, an official with the American Automobile Association said “This zero tolerance is out of order, out of bounds and outrageous,” and he had been unaware of it. The policy can be especially harmful to those federal employees who need to maintain an arrest-free record in order to keep their jobs.


  • Schulte, Bridgid. Single glass of wine immerses D.C. driver in legal battle. Washington Post, October 12, 2005.
  • Hold the wine (editorial). Washington Post, October 13, 2005.
  • Schulte, Bridgid. Critics say District’s DUI policy goes too far: jailing drivers for 1 drink called wasting resources. Washington Post, October 13, 2005.
  • Schulte, Brigid. D.C. chief defends officers’ judgments in DUI arrests. Washington Post, October 14, 2005.
  • Letters to the Editor. Washington Post, October 15, 2005.
  • For a few dollars more. Washington Times, October 18, 2005.
  • Schulte, Brigid and Weiss, Eric M. Council hastens to revise DUI law. Washington Post, October 15, 2005.
  • District of Columbia. USA Today, October 25, 2005.
  • Weiss, Eric. Ramsey steps up defense of DUI law. Washington Post, October 27, 2005.

Filed Under: Drinking and Driving