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'Noah's Law' expanding ignition interlocks up for final vote in House

Rich Leotta holds a news conference Thursday outside the Miller Senate Office Building in Annapolis to implore lawmakers to pass the original version of Noah’s Law, a bill named for his son that requires first-time convicted drunk drivers to use ignition interlocks on their vehicles. His son, Noah Leotta, was a Montgomery County police officer who was killed by a drunk driver in December. Leotta is joined by his niece, Sophie Leotta, and his wife, Marcia Goldman.
Rich Leotta holds a news conference Thursday outside the Miller Senate Office Building in Annapolis to implore lawmakers to pass the original version of Noah’s Law, a bill named for his son that requires first-time convicted drunk drivers to use ignition interlocks on their vehicles. His son, Noah Leotta, was a Montgomery County police officer who was killed by a drunk driver in December. Leotta is joined by his niece, Sophie Leotta, and his wife, Marcia Goldman. (Pamela Wood / The Baltimore Sun)

Rich Leotta stood outside a brick building in Annapolis Thursday, uniformed police officers and reporters crowding around him.

He implored the lawmakers inside to pass a bill named for his late son, Montgomery County Police Officer Noah Leotta, that requires all convicted drunk drivers to use ignition interlock devices that keep the car from starting if the driver has been drinking.

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Versions of the bill have been before the General Assembly for years, but have repeatedly stalled in the House of Delegates. The bill is finally moving forward in the House, with a key debate scheduled for Friday morning, but Leotta said the legislation is now too weak to do much good.

"We had a good step the other week. The Judiciary Committee passed the law, but it was extremely weakened down," Leotta said. "It was watered down to where it was basically neutered."

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Leotta's 24-year-old son was working for a Montgomery County drunk driving task force in December when he pulled over a driver and then was struck by a car driven by a drunk driver. He suffered severe injuries and died a week later.

The driver, Luis Gustavo Reluzco, 47, has been indicted for negligent auto manslaughter and not changing lanes when approaching an emergency vehicle. A trial is scheduled for May.

As written, Noah's Law would require ignition interlocks for convicted first-time drunk drivers with a blood-alcohol level of .08 percent or greater, those whose license has been suspended for refusing to take a Breathalyzer test, those convicted of motor vehicle homicide while impaired and those convicted of reckless or negligent driving in connection with an alcohol or drug offense.

Currently, the interlocks are only required for drivers convicted of drunk driving with a blood-alcohol level of at least .15 percent.

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"It's fair, it's proportional and it saves lives," said Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery Democrat who is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill, which has not been altered.

The House Judiciary Committee, however, revised the bill in a way that advocates say introduces loopholes, including not requiring interlocks for drivers who refuse to take a Breathalyzer test. The amendments were sponsored by Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., the committee chairman who also is a criminal defense attorney.

Flanked by his wife, Marcia Goldman, and his 16-year-old niece, Sophia Leotta, Leotta urged lawmakers to reconsider those changes.

"We need to restore it back to where it was," he said before heading inside to testify on the bill before the Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, the committee chairman, said his committee members are concerned about drunk driving.

"We've tried to pass this bill for a number of years … It's a safe assumption we're going to be passing again," said Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Gov. Larry Hogan supports the bill as one of several necessary steps to reduce drunk driving deaths, said Christine Nizer, head of the state Motor Vehicle Administration.

Nizer said in the past year, ignition interlocks prevented drivers from making 4,000 trips because they had been drinking.

Beginning next month, the MVA will allow drivers with blood-alcohol levels as low as .08 percent to opt-in to the ignition interlock system through the MVA's administrative process, she said. Noah's Law will require the interlocks for criminal convictions, she said.

The expanded use of ignition interlocks is "a tremendous opportunity to make progress and save lives," Nizer said.

The Senate committee also heard from opponents of Noah's Law, including Greenbelt attorney Leonard Stamm, who defends drunk drivers. He said the law targets social drinkers who might have a few drinks at dinner and not realize they were violating the law.

"If we're going to point a finger at something, I would point the finger at the lack of education and the lack of treatment," he said.

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