A new Maryland law dedicated to the memory of a police officer killed by a drunken motorist will require anyone convicted of drunken driving to install an ignition interlock device.
"Noah's Law" is one of 300 bills passed by the General Assembly this year that become law Saturday.
Named after Montgomery County police Officer Noah Leotta, the measure is seen as the most important stiffening of Maryland's drunken-driving laws in several years. It makes installation of an ignition interlock — which prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has consumed alcohol — mandatory even for first offenders.
"It's a huge victory," said Chuck Hurley, legislative chairman for MADD Maryland. "It's a breakthrough that will lead to dramatic reductions in drunk-driving fatalities."
The measure passed during a legislative session that saw significant bipartisan agreement on criminal justice legislation, despite clashes between the Democratic leaders of the legislature and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan on spending.
The Justice Reinvestment Act, a sweeping reform of state criminal justice laws, is aimed at reducing the prison population while improving public safety. It changes Maryland's approach on such matters as sentencing, parole and probation, and drug treatment. Money saved by reducing the number of prisoners will be redirected to crime prevention programs.
A wide range of other measures also take effect, ranging from protections for bees to allowing golf carts to operate on state roads in the Somerset County town of Crisfield.
Divorce will become easier in uncontested cases. Small-stakes home poker games, ubiquitous but unlawful, will gain legal sanction. And carmakers will be prohibited from retaliating against dealers who tell customers about manufacturing defects.
"The law lets dealers do what they ought to do: Stand up for the safety of their customers," said Jack Fitzgerald, president of Fitzgerald Auto Malls and a supporter of the legislation.
The new drunken-driving law replaces a measure that required ignition interlock devices for second and subsequent offenders but left it to the discretion of a judge in most cases involving first offenders. Drunken drivers whose blood-alcohol level registered at twice the legal limit are currently required to install ignition interlock devices.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other advocates had tried to strengthen that law for many years but had been thwarted in the House Judiciary Committee. Their effort gained new impetus after Leotta, who was on an assignment to look for drunken drivers, was struck while out of his cruiser Dec. 3, 2015, by a car driven by Luis Gustavo Reluzco of Olney, who was intoxicated at the time.
Leotta, 24, died a week later at a Bethesda hospital. Reluzco, a 47-year-old repeat drunken driver, pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter in May. He could receive a prison term of up to 10 years and is due to be sentenced Oct. 27.
Hurley said that after Leotta's death, proponents of the ignition interlock bill — including sponsors Del. Ben Kramer and state Sen. Jamie Raskin, both Montgomery County Democrats — approached the officer's parents and sought permission to call the measure "Noah's Law."
Richard Leotta and his wife, Marcia Goldman, agreed.
"This was a way of continuing his work, continuing his effort to stop the scourge of drunk driving," Richard Leotta said. "It's a way of channeling our grief in a positive way."
Supporters mounted a campaign to pressure lawmakers to pass the bill, beating back an effort to water it down in House of Delegates committee. The measure passed with overwhelming support and was signed by Hogan.
Hurley, a former national chief executive of MADD who has lobbied for the organization across the country, said it took seven years to win passage of the bill in Maryland. This year, he said, public pressure made it impossible for lawmakers to refuse to act.
"Maryland is the toughest place to make progress on drunk driving I've ever been in," Hurley said. "This law should have been passed seven years ago. It might have saved many lives. It might have saved Noah's life."
Uncontested divorces: Drops requirement that a third party must testify the couple has not stayed under the same roof for a year.
Underage drinking: Allows prosecution of adults who knowingly allow people under 21 to drink alcohol in their homes when the adult should know that the underage drinker would then drive and when the result is a crash causing serious harm. Sets penalty of up to a year in jail.
Extortion of immigrants: Makes it a felony to extort an immigrant by reporting or threatening to report them to immigration authorities.
Protecting bees: With exceptions for farmers and professional applicators, prohibits sale and use of a class of pesticides believed to be harmful to bees that pollinate plants.
Poker games: Legalizes home poker and other betting games if the house does not profit and if the total stakes are less than $1,000.