Judges' power to order drunken drivers off road rejected


The state's highest court ruled Thursday that judges do not have the authority to order convicted drunken drivers off the road.

The Court of Appeals ruled that state motor vehicle codes empower only the Motor Vehicle Administration to grant and revoke drivers' licenses and that judges may not usurp that authority in sentencing drunken drivers.

"Clearly, if the legislature believed it was warranted, it could have empowered the trial courts to impose, as a condition of probation, suspension of driving privileges in cases involving motor vehicle laws," Judge Howard S. Chasanow wrote for a unanimous court.

The decision vacated a 1995 order by Worcester County Circuit Judge Theodore R. Eschenburg that prohibited a 59-year-old nurse from driving for the three years she was on probation.

Frances Sheppard of Ocean Pines was charged with drunken driving after she drove her 1988 Chevy Blazer through a wall of her garage and into the lagoon behind her home, where she was rescued by police. It was her fourth drunken-driving charge.

Sheppard's lawyer said at her sentencing that she had just been through open-heart surgery, was in alcohol counseling and was mourning the loss of her son, who was killed in 1992 in a robbery on a Baltimore street.

Before suspending her license, Judge Eschenburg noted that his mother and his wife frequented Sheppard's neighborhood. He also sentenced her to 60 days in jail, three years of probation and imposed a $500 fine.

The appeals court said yesterday that state codes include a "very detailed statutory scheme" specifying that the MVA must decide on license suspensions, revocations and reinstatements.

The court said that for someone such as Sheppard, the sanctions would have prompted a suspension of only two years unless there were other factors involved, such as a serious physical or mental impairment or an accumulation of other driving violations.

"A judge does not have unlimited discretion in fashioning conditions of probation. A condition of probation may be found to be unduly restrictive and unreasonable," Chasanow wrote in the 14-page ruling.

Assistant Attorney General Gary E. Bair said the Maryland attorney general might seek amendments to state codes to give judges the authority to revoke or suspend a driver's license.

Pub Date: 12/14/96

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