D.C.'s faulty breath analyzers bring nearly $1m in lawsuits

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Local,Freeman Klopott

Nearly $1 million in lawsuits have been filed against the District by a dozen drivers who say their civil rights were violated by the city's faulty breath analyzers.

The 12 drivers were among 400 who were convicted of driving while intoxicated in the District since October 2008, when city officials say police Officer Kelvin King inaccurately calibrated three of the police department's 13 Intoxylizer 5000s. An outside contractor discovered the improper adjustments on Feb. 4, 2010, officials said during a D.C. Council hearing on Wednesday.

Since then, the District has replaced the 15-year-old Intoxylizer 5000s with a newer version that's deemed more accurate.

The lawsuits filed in the District's federal court over the past three months are asking for a total of $900,000. The suits allege that in most cases the 12 drivers would have received lighter sentences had the breath analyzers not inflated blood alcohol levels by as much as 30 percent.

For District resident Sheldon Gordy, 30 percent was the difference between jail and going free. He was pulled over on March 14, 2008, and blew a 0.20 blood alcohol level, more than double the limit at which a driver is deemed intoxicated. Under District law, a 0.20 or above also means jail time. When Gordy was convicted of DWI in January 2010, he spent five days behind bars, court documents said.

Gordy is among those who have sued the city.

On Wednesday, Councilman Phil Mendelson questioned Deputy Attorney General Robert Hildum on the government's certainty that the breath analyzers were accurate before King changed their motors in October 2008 as part of their maintenance.

"Prior to the motor being changed, we have as much confidence in them as we can," Hildum responded.

Assistant Police Chief Patrick Burke testified that an internal investigation cleared King of any intentional wrongdoing. King has been the department's only breath analyzers technician since 1995. Burke said King was following instructions from the breath analyzers' manufacturer when the calibration errors were made.

By law, authorities are required to test the equipment every 90 days. Burke said King's records show the breath analyzers repeatedly passed inspection.

King was transferred to the forensic sciences division six months before the outside contractor discovered the breath analyzers were faulty, Burke said.

fklopott@washingtonexaminer.com

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