By Erin Cox, The Baltimore Sun
5:11 PM EDT, April 14, 2014
Of the nearly 150 bills Gov. Martin O'Malley signed into law Monday morning, one bore the name of a 5-year-old boy from South Baltimore who died in 2011 after a distracted driver chatting on his cellphone plowed into the back of Jake Owen's family car without hitting the brakes.
On Monday, the little boy's family watched the governor sign what has become known as "Jake's Law" into the books, creating stiffer penalties and jail time for anyone who causes a serious or fatal car crash while texting or talking on phone. It aims to make the offense akin to driving drunk.
"It's a little bittersweet because nothing can bring him back," said Jake's mother, Susan Yum.
Jake's Law was among several high-profile bills passed by the General Assembly this year that were signed Monday by O'Malley, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, all Democrats.
The trio also signed legislation that will decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and revamp the state's stalled medical marijuana program. Mothers of children with conditions that could be aided by the drug filed into the governor's reception room to watch O'Malley sign the law, which creates a new program to grow and distribute marijuana for medicinal use. The "mommy lobby" played a key role in persuading lawmakers to jump-start a medical marijuana program that never got off the ground.
Under another law, it will no longer be a state crime to possess less than 10 grams of marijuana, making the offense similar to getting a traffic ticket. Advocates argued that although people smoke marijuana at roughly the same rates, African-Americans are far more likely to get prosecuted and get a criminal record that can threaten future job prospects and student loans.
"We leveled the playing field," said Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, a Baltimore Democrat who worked to help pass the law. The decriminalization bill and Jake's Law, like many signed Monday, take effect Oct. 1. Some others take effect July 1.
Maryland's association of state's attorneys voted last week to ask O'Malley not to sign the decriminalization bill, but the governor said Monday he thinks minor possession charges are ineffective because they take police off the street for crimes that judges consider unworthy of jail time.
"The fact of the matter was that very few people, if any, get time for smoking marijuana," O'Malley said. He added that with the citations in place, "fewer people have to go through a full-blown arrest," which makes it easier for officers to stay on the streets pursuing other crimes.
Another set of laws signed Monday will toughen some domestic violence penalties and make it easier to obtain protective orders.
More bills, passed in the aftermath of the corruption scandal at the Baltimore City Detention Center, aim to prevent corruption among corrections officers and toughen penalties for sneaking contraband into jail.
As they waited for O'Malley to sign Jake's Law, the boy's sister Alex, now 9, and his father, James, waited with grandparents, other family and friends for what they hope is the next step in a public awareness campaign about distracted driving.
Del. Luke H. Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat who lives four blocks from the Owen family, said the entire community was devastated when Jake died. And then they were outraged, he said, when the driver was fined only $1,000 in the crash.
"When you take someone's life, when acting recklessly and negligently, there should be more consequences," said Clippinger, who is a prosecutor in Anne Arundel County.
Clippinger said the driver's attorney argued in court that talking on the phone while driving was commonplace. The driver would have faced jail time if he had been drinking, but texting or talking with driving was not enough to convince a judge that the driver was negligent, said Clippinger.
"It isn't considered reckless by juries and judges," Clippinger said. "It's not reckless behavior if 'everyone is doing it.' "
The new law allows a judge to impose a sentence of a year in jail and a $5,000 fine if a driver causes an accident with serious or fatal injuries while texting or talking on the phone.
Yum, Jake's mother, said she hopes that the tougher penalties help deter people from using their phones while driving. And she said it hopes it begins a culture shift, as the public begins to consider distracting driving with the same gravity as drunken driving.
"It's socially acceptable now," she said of distracted driving. "Jake was 5 years old. He shouldn't have died that way. That crash was entirely preventable."
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