A bill that would significantly toughen Maryland's drunken driving laws got past a major legislative hurdle yesterday when the House Judiciary Committee approved the measure overwhelmingly.
The proposal, House Bill 1024, would make the blood-alcohol level of 0.10 percent absolute proof of driving while intoxicated. Under the measure, attorneys no longer could use their clients' successful performance on field sobriety tests to prove that they weren't drunk. Defendants could argue only that Breathalyzer tests were faulty or administered improperly.
The Judiciary Committee has killed the measure in past years, but approved it yesterday by a vote of 17-3. The bill now moves to the floor of the House.
A companion measure, Senate Bill 256, is pending before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which passed it last year as did the full Senate.
Yesterday's debate in the Judiciary Committee centered on weighing the rights of drivers who drink against those who don't.
Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, said Breathalyzer tests give inaccurately high readings 2.3 percent of the time, drawing that statistic from a 20-year-old scientific study. Was it fair, he asked, to rely so heavily on an imperfect test that would taint some innocent people as guilty?
"We just sweep them all in there with everybody else because the machine is right," said Mr. Montague, a lawyer. .
But the committee's vice chairwoman, Ann Marie Doory, said existing law already favors drunks. Some habitual drinkers have learned how to successfully perform field sobriety tests even after consuming six or eight beers, she said.
"I think there's an imbalance here," said Ms. Doory, who also is a lawyer and Democrat from Baltimore. "You don't have a constitutional right to drive, it's a privilege."
Said Harford County Republican Del. James M. Harkins: "You also don't have a right to kill my children."
Del. Frank S. Turner, a Howard County Democrat, pointed out that 46 states already have similar drunking driving "per se" laws and that courts around the nation have upheld their constitutionality.
"Five states fly the Confederate battle flag," responded Michael W. Burns, a Republican from Glen Burnie. "Does that mean we should do that? This is, to me, a fundamental issue of basic constitutional rights."
The bill's sponsor, Del. Gilbert J. Genn, attributed the bill's success yesterday to strong testimony last week from a wide variety of advocates, including police officers, high school students, prosecutors and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. The fact that most states have similar laws also played a big part, said Mr. Genn, a Montgomery County Democrat.
"I think people have seen that sometimes the state is out of step," he said. Mr. Genn also said the accuracy of Breathalyzer tests has improved greatly through the years.
Last week, though, Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat, gave the bill a fair chance of passage based on turnover in the committee after the 1994 election. In past years, the panel has been top-heavy with attorneys who have been cautious about making major changes in Maryland's criminal laws. The new committee has far more lay people.