City Desk

Urine Tests Might Piss Cops Off

It's been a year since Breathalyzers disappeared from the District, and now some inebriated drivers may be getting a free pass. In February 2010, the city admitted it goofed on some 400 breath tests after a technician made flawed adjustments to devices used by the Metropolitan Police Department. Philly has had similar problems.

The Washington Post reported Sunday that, according to the police union, 2011 has seen a 40 percent drop in Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol arrests, compared to the same time last year. Currently, cops are issuing sobriety tests (as in making drivers walk the line). Drivers are asked to consent to giving a urine sample  if they fail.

A police official speaking on the condition of anonymity believes he knows why there are fewer drunk driving arrests being made. Some police officers have no idea where to take suspects to collect their urine. Some think they should bring them to a hospital; others think they should take suspected drunks to the station. "It's just a learning curve for everyone to get to understand and start getting the percentage back up," he says.

MPD officials think everyone should be on the same page. Written protocols have been "distributed agency-wide," police spokesperson Gwendolyn Crump says. Crump didn't answer a request to explain how the testing works. Court records connected to two DUI arrests this weekend show that accused drunk drivers were taken to police station holding cells to have their urine tested.

Internal MPD documents say that up until April 8, after having a cop (of the suspect's gender) watch suspects give urine samples, the urine was sealed in a container, and the arresting cop had to go through the trouble of  driving the urine to the Forensic Science Services Division on V Street NE. Last weekend, station cell blocks were equipped with refrigerators that housed the  samples, cutting out the delivery part of the officer's responsibility.

The containers are now picked up and ferried by MPD's Impaired Driver Support Unit to the Office of the Chief  Medical Examiner's office for testing. Still, the process, which involves fooling around with bio-hazards, is time and manpower consuming—not to mention awkward.

It's also slow. Defense attorney David Benowitz tries drunk driving cases and is familiar with the process. Benowitz says it usually takes about 90 days to get the results. That's opposed to a Breathalyzer, which gives instant answers. It's easy to see how this urine sample "cluster-fuck," as one officer calls it, could discourage cops from making DUI collars.

But another official doesn't think confusing or cumbersome urine sample protocols are to blame for the drop in DUI arrests. He has a different theory: Cops have lost confidence in the cases.

"Officers don't like to have their cases dismissed," he says. The official says that since the trouble with District Breathalyzers emerged, cops have been wary about wasting time trying to get a DUI arrest prosecuted.

As far as Benowitz is concerned, the skepticism is warranted. Urine analysis isn't dependable. "Here's the issue with the way the tests are conducted," he says. "Urine that has been sitting in your bladder for an undetermined period of time is being tested. All that result can tell you is that at some point, a person had alcohol in their urine." In other words, a person can easily be more, or less, drunk than the test shows. Some lawyers even advise their clients to take a urine test instead of a breath or blood test because it's easier to challenge in court.

No matter whether urine tests will hold up in a courtroom, it's clear the District needs to get its act together on its new Breathalyzer program, which is ready to go but is currently being put off because the city can't figure out who'll run it. MPD Chief Cathy Lanier wants the medical examiner to be responsible, but the office says it doesn't have enough resources. The city has already brought $90,000 worth of now-languishing equipment, and each urine test costs $75, so the bureaucratic stalemate has become expensive.

In the meantime, an enforcement effort that keeps D.C. streets safe to cross has become a strain on cops.

Photo by Elsie esq. via Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0 Generic

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