ANNAPOLIS – State senators heard a slew of bills Tuesday aimed at drunken drivers, including a measure that would increase penalties for “super-drunk” drivers who have a blood-alcohol level of .16 or higher.
The bills enjoyed broad, sometimes emotional support, during hours of testimony before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. And supporters noted that the state will continue to have $2 million in federal highway construction funds diverted to highway safety, until it lowers the level for drunken driving from a blood-alcohol level of .10 to .08.
In response, Sen. Walter Baker, D-Cecil, said he was “not impressed by legal blackmail.” Baker, the chairman of the committee, also noted that many of the proposals taken up Tuesday have been killed by the committee in the past.
“It’s a tough committee to get a bill through,” said Wendy Hamilton, national vice president of victim issues for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “What we try to do is show them that families are devastated every single year and nothing is changing in the legislature to deal with this.”
One proposal that has not been heard by the committee before is the so- called “super-drunk” bill, sponsored by Sen. Philip Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel.
Under the bill, fines for first-time drunken drivers with a blood-alcohol content of.16 or higher would be raised from $1,000 to $1,500 and jail time would be increased from a year to 18 months. For second, third and subsequent offenses, the fine is increased by a $1,000 and a year of jail is added each time. The maximum penalty would be a fine of up to $4,000 and up to four years in jail.
“It’s just hard to believe that someone with a .10 can be charged with the same penalty as someone with a .16.” Jimeno said. “When you’re dealing with that blood-alcohol level, you’re a risk to everyone on the road.”
The bill was backed by the Maryland State Police, the Motor Vehicle Administration, insurance companies, and even the Maryland Beer Wholesalers Association Inc.
The only dissent came from the Maryland State’s Attorney’s Association, which said it feared the tougher “super-drunk” penalties would simply lead to more drivers refusing to take breath test when they are pulled over. Refusing the test only causes a driver to have his license suspended for 120 on the first offense.
“The best evidence of intoxication is the (breath) test,” said Anne Arundel County Assistant State’s Attorney William Katcef, testifying for the association. “Any legislation that would have the affect of increasing the number of refusals would have a disabling effect on the ability of prosecutors to obtain convictions for the most serious charges.”
Baker said Katcef’s concerns are well founded.
“People with multiple suspensions don’t give a damn” if their license is suspended and they would refuse a breathalyzer, Baker said.
The super-drunk bill was one of five heard Tuesday. Other measures would ban open containers of alcohol in cars; suspend the licenses of minors caught with any amount of alcohol, whether they were driving or not; and require multiple offenders to have ignition locks, in-car breathalyzers that keep a car from starting if the driver had alcohol in his system.
Sen. Ida Ruben, D-Montgomery, is again pushing a bill that would lower the blood-alcohol level for driving while intoxicated from .10 to .08, even though the measure has failed to make it out of committee for the last several years.
Besides saving lives, Ruben said, the lower limit would bring Maryland in line with federal mandates and allow it to get $2 million a year in capital highway funding that is now being diverted into safety programs.
The carrot of more highway funding left Baker unmoved.
Even so, Mothers Against Drunk Driving said it will continue to push for a .08 blood-alcohol level. Hamilton said the lower limit is needed, noting that one-quarter of all drunken driving deaths involve motorists whose blood-alcohol level is less than .10.
“It’s targeting all drinking drivers. If you kill someone at .08, you’re going to get a much lesser penalty than the felony .10,” she said.