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Poison Pill for Drunken Driving Bill


Just when it looked as if Maryland would join 46 other states dead-serious about cracking down on drunken driving, state Sen. Walter Baker snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Mr. Baker had already made known his aversion to so-called per se legislation creating a concrete standard for drunken driving. Anyone caught driving with a blood-alcohol concentration of .10 would be considered drunk. That's the minimum law of the land everywhere but Maryland, Tennessee, South Carolina and Massachusetts.

An overwhelming vote in the House 12 days ago apparently made it clear to Mr. Baker he would be on shaky ground if he tried to bury alive the legislation in his personal potter's field -- the Judicial Proceedings Committee. Mr. Baker is too shrewd an undertaker for that.

Instead, he fed the bill a poison pill in the form of an unworkable amendment that would create an administrative monster for police.

On the surface, the amendment seems reasonable, which is why it escaped the vigilance of more reasonable minds on Judicial Proceedings. The change would require police to provide maintenance records from breath-alcohol equipment for 90 days before and 30 days after a driver fails a blood-alcohol test. But defense attorneys can already request such information. Requiring its preparation by law in 22,000 drunk-driving cases a year would be an administrative nightmare -- and a defense attorney's dream. Instead of succeeding in getting a drunken driver off because a police officer was unable to attend a hearing, the loophole would be that the machine technician couldn't attend or some other paperwork technicality.

It is ironic the conservative Eastern Shore senator would favor a bill that would mandate the kind of immense bureaucratic cost that he would normally oppose philosophically.

This amended version is worse than any per se law at all. In fact, both houses of the legislature have already passed a clear per se bill -- unfortunately, in two different years. The Senate approved a good per se bill 38-9 last year and the House came around this year by a whopping 123-9 vote.

Mr. Baker's was a disingenuous and dispiriting maneuver to cloud an issue with a clear goal -- to reduce the carnage caused by drunkards on Maryland roads. We urge the General Assembly to pass a clean per se drunken driving law like 46 other states have and that the Maryland State Police, Shock Trauma Center and Gov. Parris Glendening all support -- and not a bill that is mere sheep's clothing to disguise trial lawyers' interests.

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