The District of Columbia will pay $20,000 to resolve cases brought by four plaintiffs who sued over the city's incorrectly calibrated breath test machines. Sixteen other cases are still pending, though, either because the plaintiffs rejected the city's offer or never received one.
City officials announced in 2010 that its breath test machines were incorrectly calibrated, causing blood alcohol readings that were too high by as much as 30 percent. More than 20 people arrested for drunk driving filed suit against the city in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and District of Columbia Superior Court.
Four of the federal court plaintiffs notified U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer yesterday that they had accepted offers of judgment from the city in amounts ranging from $2,000 to $8,000. In making the offer, the city wrote that it would continue to "deny culpability and/or liability." There are six cases still pending in federal court and 10 cases pending in Superior Court; several cases were dismissed because the plaintiffs failed to have their drunk driving convictions overturned or otherwise resolved in their favor.
A lead attorney for the federal and Superior Court plaintiffs, Jeffrey Rhodes of Albo & Oblon in Arlington, Va., said today that the six other federal plaintiffs had rejected offers of judgment from the city - those offers expired today. Rhodes said city officials had not made offers to the Superior Court plaintiffs.
Unlike a settlement agreement, which can be negotiated behind the scenes and is often confidential, an offer of judgment is public. Rhodes said he thought the city opted for that route because officials had already made public statements admitting to problems with the machines.
The four plaintiffs who accepted the city’s offer “decided that this was some recognition on the part of the District of Columbia as to their fault in this matter,” Rhodes said. “It’s a public entry of judgment against the District of Columbia, so by its very nature it recognizes some level of fault. In that regard they felt that they were vindicated to a degree.”
In an e-mail this morning, Ted Gest, a spokesman for the D.C. attorney general’s office, said that city officials are “not conceding liability or wrongdoing but are seeking to resolve civil matters where it may be in the District’s interest to pay a sum to end the uncertainties of the litigation.”
Testifying before the D.C. Council February, D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan said that this office (instead of "this office" can we say "his office" or some such?) was continuing to prosecute drunk driving cases, despite the absence of breath test machines. Gest added today that the Metropolitan Police Department and Office of the Chief Medical Examiner “are making good progress in getting the breathalyzers [b]ack and functioning and we expect them to be fully operational in a few months.”
The plaintiffs had accused the city, as well as the officer in charge of calibrating and testing the machines, of violating their right to due process under the Fifth Amendment and of violating their right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. In November, Collyer denied a motion by the officer in charge, Officer Kelvin King, to be dismissed from the case as an individual.
Besides damages, the city will be on the hook for attorney fees in the four cases it resolved through judgments. Rhodes said he has yet to put together fee petitions, but expected that in each case it would exceed $8,000.