Drunken driving bill clears major hurdle


Overcoming opposition from an influential committee chairman, legislation that would make it easier to prosecute Maryland's drunken drivers won a crucial victory in the state Senate yesterday.

The bill would make a blood-alcohol test of .10 percent or greater absolute proof of drunken driving.

Under current law, a failing blood-alcohol test can merely be offered as evidence of guilt -- along with any evidence of innocence presented by the defense.

Sen. Walter M. Baker, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee and a strong opponent of the measure, had persuaded his committee Friday to add a controversial amendment to the bill. Critics claimed that the change would have, at best, made the law difficult to enforce and possibly have killed the legislation altogether.

But in dramatic fashion, the Senate voted 25-22 yesterday to strip all committee amendments, and then gave the cleansed bill preliminary approval.

Supporters hailed their heavily lobbied victory as an important step toward cracking down on drunken drivers. Maryland is one of only four states that does not have a so-called "intoxicated per se" law.

"This has been a long fight," said Jacqueline S. Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "This law fully draws a line in the pavement when it comes to drunken driving."

The Baker amendment would have required the state to produce an extensive array of police records that could have aided a drunken driving defendant.

Upon request, police would have had to supply maintenance logs for a Breathalyzer, or other blood-alcohol testing device, covering the period 90 days before a defendant's test and 30 days after.

The effort to kill Senator Baker's amendment was led by Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Montgomery County Democrat, who claimed that the provision would have been too great a burden on state police.

It would have required them to provide as many as 13,000 41-page reports -- all ammunition for defense lawyers to "play games" in court, she said.

"Our concern is to keep drunken drivers off the road," Senator Ruben said. "These records would create a nightmare."

Senator Baker, a Cecil County Democrat with a conservative to libertarian view of government, said he opposed the legislation because it presumed a defendant's guilt. Under the measure, defense lawyers would not be able to get drunken driving charges reduced or dropped by offering evidence of a defendant's sobriety, such as passing a field sobriety test.

As committee chairman, Mr. Baker had publicly flirted with the idea of postponing the panel's vote until April 11 -- one day after the General Assembly session adjourns.

Yesterday, he did not speak on the Senate floor, and he was visibly angered by the full chamber's decision. The 25-vote majority included three members of his own committee, a departure from the customary practice of legislators supporting their committee's decision.

Senator Baker declined to discuss the issue afterward with reporters.

Nevertheless, some senators questioned whether Senator Baker had truly sought to undermine the bill by offering a "killer amendment," as some of the legislation's supporters claimed. They pointed out that criminal lawyers already routinely obtain the same records through subpoena.

"It's a good bill and overdue, but we still live under a system where the state must prove you're guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and you're entitled to those records," said Sen. F. Vernon Boozer, a Baltimore County Republican. He supported the amendment but promised to vote for the bill whether it carried the change or not.

Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore Democrat, said the amendment merely would have made the law conform with what happens in court now. The defendant has the right, she said, "to be able to tell if the machine was in error."

In an interview later yesterday, Leonard H. Shapiro, an Owings Mills trial attorney with expertise in drunken driving law, said legislators have put too much faith in machines that can mislead.

The legislation would reduce flexibility in a courtroom process that has already succeeded in dramatically reducing the incidence of drunken driving statewide, he said.

"Not being for this law doesn't mean one is soft on drunk driving," Mr. Shapiro said. "This is fraught with unfairness."

The legislation is expected to be passed by the Senate as early as today. Proponents predicted that the House -- which has already overwhelmingly approved an identical bill -- will likely pass the Senate measure without changes to avoid putting the legislation back in Senator Baker's hands.

"I think we're in good shape, but there are a lot of trap doors in the last week of a session that are still available," said Del. Gilbert J. Genn, a Montgomery Democrat and the bill's House sponsor.

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