Drunk driver gets wrist slap in Maryland, tougher justice in Pennsylvania

A Maryland state delegate proposes that anyone convicted of drunken driving three times be forced to use a bright yellow license plate bearing the letters "DUI." But why does anyone with three convictions get to continue operating a motor vehicle? How about three strikes, and you're taking the bus? Let's see a state delegate propose that as a remedy.

As for the yellow stigmata -- forget about it. If a drunk is still on the road, still licensed to drive, a yellow license plate isn't going to do the rest of us much good.

It would not have helped Doug Gorschboth, who lived to tell about it.

He and his 19-year-old daughter, Katy, both were injured one night last June when a drunken driver blew through a stop sign on Route 439 in northern Baltimore County, right into the path of their Ford van. The Gorschboths, who live in southern Pennsylvania, were on the way home from a wedding when the accident occurred. They were taken by ambulance to York Hospital in Pennsylvania and spent the night there.

Mr. Gorschboth's right wrist was fractured; a titanium plate and screws now hold it together. His daughter, a freshman at the University of Delaware, experienced shortness of breath, chest pains, knees pains and bruising. An orthopedic specialist determined that she had ruptured a disc in her spinal column. She still has pain in both knees.

The driver of the vehicle that hit theirs was Brian Onion, 27, from southern Pennsylvania town of Stewartstown, whose blood-alcohol level was measured at .15. The legal limit for driving under the influence in the state of Maryland is .08.

Baltimore County police charged the drunk with four offenses, including DUI. His case got to the District Court of Maryland, with Judge Sally Chester presiding, on Dec. 29.

Mr. Gorschboth, as you might imagine, was paying close attention to the case of the drunken driver.

Mr. Gorschboth wanted to be there when the case was called on Dec. 29. But, he says, an assistant state's attorney told him the state would be seeking postponement because the Baltimore County police officer who reported the accident was not available.

So Mr. Gorschboth assumed he would receive a call when the case went to trial.

It turns out, however, that the arresting officer had been available on Dec. 29, after all. Mr. Onion pleaded not guilty. The prosecutor presented Judge Chester with a statement of facts. The Gorschboths never got to court.

Despite the fact that the defendant had a pending DUI charge in Pennsylvania, Judge Chester gave him probation before judgment.

When he learned of this, Mr. Gorschboth was outraged. Not only had he missed the opportunity to appear in court, but the judge's sentence shocked him. Probation for blowing a .15 and a stop sign, with injuries resulting from the crash?

Mr. Gorschboth would have liked to have had some say in the matter.

"We could have done a better job in handling this case," acknowledges Leo Ryan, the Baltimore County deputy state's attorney.

Mr. Ryan had read an angry letter Mr. Gorschboth wrote to Mr. Ryan's boss, Scott Shellenberger, the county's chief prosecutor. After looking into Mr. Gorschboth's complaint, Mr. Ryan says, it was decided that the District Court prosecutor involved needed some additional training in the handling of such cases.

"In a case where an accident occurs with personal injury," Mr. Ryan says, "every effort should be made to make sure the victims have an opportunity to be heard and informed." Mr. Gorschboth appreciated the response of the state's attorney's office.

But there's still the matter of a PBJ for a driver charged with one of the most serious of Maryland's DUI offenses.

Judge Chester declined to comment on the case.

Curious about how a Pennsylvania court might treat the same driver, Mr. Gorschboth looked a little deeper and found that, in late September, Mr. Onion had been found guilty of going 80 mph in a 55 mph zone in York County. Additionally, he'd been arrested for driving under the influence on Oct. 17 in the same county. While it doesn't appear that Mr. Onion hit anything or injured anyone, his blood-alcohol level was measured at .16.

Last week, when the case came up, Judge Gregory M. Snyder of the York County Court of Common Pleas accepted Mr. Onion's guilty plea and gave him 72 hours in jail, the mandatory minimum for Pennsylvania. That's three more days than he got in Baltimore County.

"Fortunately," Mr. Gorschboth says, "the judge in Baltimore County did not have the last word. Judge Snyder was able to give a more appropriate sentence before this drunk driver killed someone or himself."

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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