When it comes to sentencing guidelines for a person who kills someone while driving under the influence of alcohol, attorneys on both sides of the courtroom agree there is a balancing act judges have to handle
According to Maryland code, homicide by motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol per se carries a maximum penalty of $5,000 and imprisonment up to five years for the first offense. A second offense bumps the maximum up to 10 years and $10,000. Homicide by motor vehicle while impaired by alcohol carries a maximum of three years on the first offense, five if it's the second or more offense.
Those are the maximums. Sentencing is decided by a judge, who can choose to impose far less than the maximum, and while a prosecutor and defense attorney might agree to a sentence, most pleas are nonbinding.
A recent case that brought sentencing for DUI homicide to the public's attention was one involving Michele Seibel, who received no active incarceration after she pleaded guilty last month to two counts of homicide by motor vehicle for driving after drinking and crashing into a car, killing two, in February 2016.
In Carroll, judges do a good job of looking at the facts and considering both the victim's family and the defendant, Senior Assistant State's Attorney Adam Wells and defense attorney Ross Albers said.
"I think they do a good job of recognizing the different factors in a DUI case," Albers said.
Deputy Thomas Vanik, who was one of the 2016 Carroll County Sheriff's Office's Catherine's Cause recipients, said the judges tend to do the best they can, but are limited by the sentencing maximums set by legislation.
Vanik said he thinks the sentencing guidelines need to be more stringent, adding that it doesn't appear to him that people's behavior is changing.
"It's basically a traffic homicide. You're killing someone because of decisions you made," Vanik said.
Noah's Law, which created harsher penalties for DUI, such as having an interlock placed on a car after the first DUI offense, is a good start, he said, but added that it took a while to get a law like that in place. Noah's Law went into effect on Oct. 16.
Vanik said there should be mandatory minimums for sentencing.
"I think three to five years as mandatory for killing someone would be a good start," he said.
Vanik said that he thinks the legislative branch is afraid to make the laws too strict. Someone who shares that opinion is Phil Mullikin, whose daughter, Catherine, was killed by a drunken driver.
Mullikin said penalties should be increased. The person who hit his daughter served nine months active incarceration.
"So nine months in jail for hitting my daughter. The way I look at it, the state thinks your life is worth nothing. They don't care," he said.
Mullikin and his wife hold a forum every month as part of Catherine's Cause. The forum is meant for people who have driven while drunk.
And the numbers of people who attend the forum is dropping he said.
Mullikin wrote a letter published in the Times after Seibel's sentencing, inviting the presiding judge in the case, Judge Thomas Stansfield, to come to one of the Catherine's Causes forums to hear from victims.
Mullikin said the judge did not attend the most recent one, but he understood, saying judges can be uncomfortable in crowds. It's why he's offered to have a conversation with the judges, though none have taken him up on the offer.
Del. Haven Shoemaker, R-District 5, and state Sen. Justin Ready, R-District 5, both said there need to be stronger maximum sentences associated with DUI homicide. But while they acknowledged the sentences could be lenient, they both said DUI legislation is something that the General Assembly does address.
The General Assembly passed Noah's Law and a bill that increased the sentences for someone who drove under the influence of drugs, Ready said.
He had also worked on a bill that would have closed some of the loopholes in the legislation around DUIs, but it did not go through, he said.
There are pros and cons to adding a mandatory minimum to a crime, and Ready said he would rather increase the maximum sentence over making a sentence mandatory. And DUI is an issue that spans the General Assembly, he said, adding that everyone wants to discourage drinking and driving.
But it might be hard to introduce a bill that would increase the maximum sentence, Shoemaker said.
Increasing sentences would follow the same process as any bill in Maryland. It would have to be written by a delegate or senator, pass through committee and then come to the floor, Shoemaker said.
In the House, he said it might be tough to make it through the Judiciary Committee, adding that the trend right now is lowering sentences, not increasing them.
"So it might be a tough sale against the majority we have in Annapolis right now," he said.