Drunken driving is focus

The Baltimore Sun

O'Malley administration officials urged a Maryland Senate committee yesterday to approve a package of bills intended to curb drunken driving - including one that would impose criminal penalties on adults who give alcohol to people under 21.

A panel including Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari, State Police Superintendent Terrence B. Sheridan and State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen called on the Senate Judicial Proceeding Committee to approve five administration-backed bills - described by proponents as significant but not dramatic steps to curb drunken driving.

Porcari described the bills as a "comprehensive approach" that has been shown in other states to reduce drunk-driving fatalities. He pointed to a 25 percent drop in New Mexico from 2004 and 2007 after it enacted similar legislation.

The bills, which focus on repeat offenders and underage drinkers, reflect the work of a task force established in 2007 to recommend measures to tighten Maryland's laws on drunken driving.

The proposals are those that the 21-member panel could achieve broad consensus on. Pedersen, who chaired the task force, said the panel recommended only those bills that were supported by a "super-majority" of its members.

The package omits some of the initiatives most passionately sought by advocates of tougher drunken driving laws, including increased penalties for "super-drunk" drivers who have blood-alcohol levels twice the legal limit. Neither does the package call for mandatory use of technology to keep offenders from driving drunk again - so-called "ignition interlock" systems - though the panel is considering a bill on that subject.

The teen drinking bill would elevate the offense of supplying alcohol to a minor from a civil offense to a criminal matter involving fines of up to $2,500 for a first offense and $5,000 for repeated offenses. Advocates say the legislation would crack down on parents who supply alcohol at parties for groups of teenagers.

The bill provides exceptions for parents or siblings who supply alcohol to members of their immediate family. The bill also provides a religious exemption that would apply, for example, to the wine passed around the table at a Passover Seder.

Another issue the teen drinking bill addresses is what critics call a "loophole" that forbids a minor to possess alcohol but not to consume it. "Underage drinkers have learned to discard their containers of alcohol when law enforcement shows up," Pedersen said.

Other measures in the governor's package would:

* Make it more difficult for a repeat drunken driver to receive probation before judgment by requiring 10 years to have passed between the first offense and the second before a judge can grant a PBJ. Currently, an offender becomes eligible for a second PBJ after five years without a violation.

* Require police to request drivers involved in fatal or life-threatening crashes to submit to a preliminary breath test regardless of whether there is probable cause to believe a driver was impaired. The test results would be used for research but would not be admissible in court. Neither could they be considered for insurance decisions.

* Impose a mandatory one-year license suspension for drivers who violate any part of the drunken-driving law a second time. Currently, a driver can avoid the mandatory suspension if one conviction is for driving under the influence and another is for the lesser charge of driving while impaired by alcohol or for related charges of driving under the influence of drugs.

* Increase the penalties for drivers who violate alcohol restrictions placed on their licenses by the Motor Vehicle Administration. Violators of such restrictions could face fines of up to $500 and two months in jail.

The O'Malley-backed bills are scheduled to be heard in the House Judiciary Committee today.

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