Maryland lawmakers patted themselves on the back last year after adopting a package of anti-drunken- driving laws, with a flood of news releases on the effort to get tough on repeat offenders.
But not everyone got the message.
In a high-profile gaffe, a judge in Anne Arundel County gave a repeat drunken driver a free pass last month, granting him probation before judgment — a finding that spares him a conviction if he satisfactorily completes probation.
The lenient sentence violates a 2009 law that is supposed to prohibit judges from issuing more than one probation before judgment within a 10-year period. Amplifying the error is the prominence of the driver: Carl O. Snowden, a longtime civil rights activist and former Annapolis alderman who holds a top position in the state attorney general's office.
The case highlights the difficulties faced by Maryland's judges and prosecutors in staying abreast of new laws, and raises questions about whether drunken driving is viewed as a serious offense, despite repeated efforts to curb it.
Lawmakers and advocates said the case was likely an anomaly, but they were surprised and discouraged that a judge would fail to take notice of a well-publicized revision.
"You work so hard to get the laws changed," said Caroline Cash, the executive director of the Maryland chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "You'd hope there is adequate communication with the judicial system of what those changes are. Apparently, that didn't occur."
Cash was among those pushing for a package of changes proposed by a group of 18 lawmakers and advocates in 2008 to find ways to tighten state drunken-driving laws. After a year and a half of study, the panel concluded, among other things, that the judicial system was too lenient in letting off offenders.
One of the initiatives passed in 2009 was a measure stiffening sentencing rules by extending from five to 10 the number of years which had to pass before a person could become eligible for a second chance to erase the conviction.
The change was recommended in part because data showed 40 percent to 50 percent of convicted drunken drivers were charged again within 10 years.
The old law wasn't "changing behavior," said Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee who worked on the governor's anti-drunken-driving task force. She and others felt that two drunken-driving convictions within a decade years showed a pattern of problematic behavior.
But the change apparently did not register with Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Ronald A. Silkworth. In mid-November, Silkworth gave Snowden probation before judgment in a drunken-driving case from this past summer — even though another judge issued the same decision when Snowden was charged with drunken driving in a 2003 case. Snowden was also charged with drunken driving in 2005, but that case was dismissed.
Silkworth has declined to speak publicly about the case.
Also unaware of the change was Talbot County prosecutor Henry Dove, who was brought in as a special prosecutor because of Snowden's extensive connections in Anne Arundel. Dove since called the sentence "illegal" and is asking for a revision.
Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the oversight was a signal that Maryland judges tend to be "get very relaxed" about drunken driving.
"Too often when we are working with a drunk-driving case, the attitude is 'Let's make a deal,'" Raskin said. He wants the General Assembly to "reassert itself" on drunken-driving rules.
Part of the problem, Raskin said, is the statutes governing drunken driving can be complex and murky, which can allow for "multiple outcomes," depending on a judge's attitude on the topic. The 2009 rules were supposed to prevent that by evening out punishments.
Raskin wants the General Assembly to go further and is championing a measure to require repeat offenders to install alcohol-measuring interlock systems connected to car ignitions. "I think we need to get serious and develop bright-line rules that makes drinking and driving a serious offense with real consequences," he said.
But Dumais said she believes the judge's oversight was an "anomaly" and not a larger indictment of the court system. Others agreed. Larry Greenberg, a member of the board of governors of the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association, said "mistakes can happen" and added that nobody knows all of the rules all of the time.
The legislative office of Maryland's court system notifies all judges of changes to the law via e-mail when the governor signs bills into law and again when those laws go into effect, said Angelita Y. Plemmer, a spokeswoman for Maryland's judiciary. She would not comment on the Snowden case.
Several attorneys noted that drunken-driving cases are most often heard in the state's lower district courts — but this one was different. Snowden's attorney, Alan H. Legum, requested a jury trial, which bumped the case up to the circuit level and put it before a judge who would not regularly hear those types of cases.
Peter S. O'Neill, an Anne Arundel County attorney said the new rules are "well-known for those people that do this type of work."
"It's unfair to blame the court," O'Neill said. "This is an area of law [the judge] may handle very infrequently."
Baltimore Sun reporter Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this article.