Advocates for Maryland's bicyclists expressed delight Tuesday that the General Assembly passed a bill creating a new misdemeanor offense for drivers who kill people as a result of serious negligence, giving prosecutors an alternative that lies between traffic charges and felony manslaughter.
The long-sought legislation passed both houses in the waning hours of the 2011 session Monday night after the House accepted a Senate amendment crafted to lessen the chance that a driver would serve time in jail for a death caused by routine driving errors.
Proponents say the charge of manslaughter by criminal negligence, punishable by up to three years in jail and a $5,000 fine, fills a gap in the law between simple traffic offenses such as negligent driving and felony automotive manslaughter.
Maryland prosecutors testified that the courts had interpreted the felony manslaughter law so narrowly that it was almost impossible to win a conviction unless the driver could be proved to have been driving while drunk or engaging in a street race.
Family members of several victims killed on bicycles were among the most vocal advocates of the bill.
"We're thrilled. We're absolutely thrilled," said Carol Silldorff, executive director of Bike Maryland.
The measure passed the House of Delegates unanimously last month after years of being bottled up in the House Judiciary Committee only to run into a skeptical reception from Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Brian E. Frosh.
But proponents persuaded senators to accept a compromise under which the criminal negligence charge was defined as "a gross deviation from the standard of care that would be exercised by a reasonable" motorist, said Michael Sonnenfeld, a Bike Maryland board member who is a lawyer. He said the language was viewed as a slightly higher standard than the "substantial" deviation called for in the House bill.
Sonnenfeld said the language adopted by the legislature is compatible with the Uniform Penal Code recognized by many other states. As an example of a case where the criminal negligence charge might be applied, he pointed to a fatal crash in which the driver had been speeding 20 mph over the limit while crossing double yellow lines and passing a school bus.
After the compromise language was adopted, the bill passed the Senate, 45-1.