Famed Indy Racer, Al Unser Jr. Gets Brief Reprieve in DUI Trial

Unser, Jr. who is facing DWI charges in Bernalillo County, New Mexico, got word this week that the start of his case will be pushed back to April 12. Unser was arrested in September 2011 and accused of street-racing in his Chevy Suburban at speeds topping 100 miles per hour with a blood alcohol level at more than twice the legal limit. Unser had previously pleaded “no contest” to a drunk driving charge in 2001 in Las Vegas.

DC Police Defend DUI Enforcement, Even Without Breathalyzers

Washington, DC Chief of Police, Cathy Lanier is standing firm on the city’s ability to enforce drunk driving laws even though the department’s breathalyzers remain out of commission because of calibration issues with the devices.

In fact, the department has been without breathalyzers for almost two years, after problems with the a contractor revealed the devices had not been properly calibrated and could be providing inaccurate results.

Urine samples have replaced  breath tests while DC police work to get breathalyzers back in service. In a recent city council meeting, Lanier touted 1,300 DUI arrests in the last year as evidence that enforcement has remained strong.

The city Attorney General also indicated to FOXdc.com that he is continuing to prospect cases based on the urine tests and testimony from arresting officer and judges continue to sentence DUI offenders to jail without breathalyzer scores to go on.

Why Breathalyzer Certification is Important

Here in Virginia, if a driver is suspected of DUI or DWI, a police officer will often ask that the person take a PBT (preliminary breath test) at the traffic stop. The results of the PBT cannot not be used against a driver at a trial. However,  the PBT results can be used by the officer to establish that he or she had probable cause to arrest a driver for DWI.

Only certain breathalyzers are approved for use in Virginia. The breath test device used by the officer to take the preliminary breath test must be on a list of machines approved by the Department of Forensic Science of Virginia.

If the PBT device is 1) not on the approved list or 2) has not been properly calibrated, an attorney can potentially  prevent police officer from providing evidence about the results of the PBT at a pre-trial hearing.

DC’s Breathalyzer Problem May Go Back a Decade

Breathalyzers are complex devices and they have to be maintained rigorously in order to produce accurate results in field conditions. In early 2011, Ilmar Paegle, the man who oversaw DC’s breathalyzer program blew the whistle on the city’s failure to perform accuracy testing on the city’s breath test machines.

In the course of a four page memo to the DC Assistant Attorney General, Kimberly Brown Paegle indicated that the accuracy test protocols required to ensure breathalyzers were properly calibrated had not been followed since at least 2000.

These failures, which the DC Attorney General’s office has attempted to downplay, took place under the supervision of Paegle’s predecessor, Officer Kelvin King, the former Chemical Testing Program Manager for the DC police.

Dozens, if not hundreds of past DUI cases could be effected by now-suspect breath test readings. Dozens of cases have been re-filed and many more pending cased dropped.  Several lawsuits have also been filed against the city as a result.

Springfield Man Charged with DUI, Felony Manslaughter

Varinder Chahal

Varinder Chahal

23-year-old Varinder Chahal ran a red light just after midnight on the morning of Wednesday February 21st in downtown Richmond, Virginia. In doing so his Mazda 6 collided with a Toyota Yaris carrying two Virginia Commonwealth University students.

The driver of the Yaris was hospitalized with non-life threatening injuries. The passenger, 19-year-old Carolina Perez of Virginia Beach was also taken to the hospital and later dies of injuries sustained in the crash. Neither Chahal nor any of the four passenger in his vehicle were hurt in the crash.

According to witnesses, after striking the Toyota, Chahal’s car spun around and struck a building. Richmond police arrived on the scene moments later.

Chahal declined to submit to a blood or breath test. He was arrested on suspicion of DUI and has also been charged with felony manslaughter.

9 Year Old Montana Girl Turns Mother in For Drunk Driving

A distraught young girl walked into a convenience store in Great Falls, Montana and told the cashier that her mother, Chari Littledog was extremely drunk and had been driving around town with her in the passenger seat.

The the girl described her mother colliding with another vehicle in downtown Great Falls. Fearing for her own safety, she had jumped out of the car and fled. The cashier called police and soon after Littledog was quickly arrested on for what would be her fourth DUI charge.

Police found Littledog parked near the Town Pump gas station where her daughter had sought refuge. According to police, Littledog was found sitting in the driver’s seat with the keys still in the ignition.

Littledog declined to participate in field sobriety tests but did offer that she had cons mined an 18-pack of beer earlier in the day. A subsequent breathalyzer test returned a blood alcohol level more than triple the legal limit in Montana.

Bill Requiring Ignition Interlock for First Time DUI Moves Through Virginia General Assembly

A bill sponsored by Del. Salvatore R. Iaquinto (R-Virginia Beach) that would require everyone convicted of a DUI to have a breath test machine installed in their vehicle has overwhelmingly passed the Virginia House of Delegates. A Senate version of the bill sponsored by A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond) has had a rougher time of it, but did pass out of committee and is expected to come up for a floor vote as soon as this week. If either bill ultimately becomes law, everyone convicted of a DUI in Virginia will be required to have an ignition interlock installed in their vehicles and would need to blow a clean breath test in order to drive.

Based on a law adopted in 2004, Virginia already mandates interlock devices for repeat DUI offenders but requiring them for a first time DUI would represent major change in policy. Setting aside how the average virginian might feel about the harsher penalties for first-time DUI recipients, powerful interest groups have arrayed themselves on both sides of the issue. On one side there are aggressive interest groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving which supports harsher penalties nationwide as well as interlock device manufacturers. Smart Start, which sells the breathalyzers employs three lobbyists in Virginia.

On the other side, groups such as the American Beverage Institute. Spokesperson Sara Longwell told Virginia’s  Dailypress.com that, “We should keep the resources focused on the hard-core guys… We have people who have six or seven DUIs and are still on the road. This would be turning attention from them to the marginal first-time offenders.” Longwell also pointed out that the interlock devices register alcohol consumption at well below the legal limit, meaning that a driver with a minimal level of alcohol in their system would be prevented from driving even though they do not reach the legal standard in Virginia for impairment.

A broader concern both the use of interlock devices is whether they are an effective tool in preventing repeat offenses. While some studies have shown that for first-time and repeat offenders, breathalyzers can be effective at reduce recidivism rates, other studies suggest that this prevention effect is limited to the duration of time that the device is installed. Following the removal of the interlock device, repeat offender rates remain high and indicate there is minimal long term effect on behavior. To date, only 15 states require interlock installation on a first time DUI offense.

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