ANNAPOLIS – With millions in federal highway funds at stake, state legislators are scrambling to comply with federal regulation and reduce the blood-alcohol level required for the crime of driving while intoxicated in Maryland from .10 to .08.
But a struggle over whether to end the state’s two-tier drunk-driving arrest system could put the bill and $5.2 million in federal highway funds in jeopardy.
Lawmakers seem unified in trying to make Maryland’s law conform to a new federal DWI standard of .08 blood-alcohol level. Maryland stands to lose the $5.2 million federal assistance for fiscal year 2004 if it doesn’t change its law by 2003, according to the Maryland Department of Transportation.
Maryland also would be ineligible for an additional $2 million federal safety incentive grant if it doesn’t comply with federal law by 2003, according to the Department of Transportation.
But some delegates and senators want to scrap Maryland’s two-part impaired driving law while meeting the federal standard.
The minimum blood-alcohol level needed to be charged with driving while intoxicated in Maryland is .10 percent. But the state also has a driving under the influence charge for drivers found to have a .07 blood-alcohol level.
Though a uniform standard is not on the bill, some legislators say it would make sense to add one.
“It seems ridiculous to have two limits,” said Delegate Robert A. Zirkin, D-Baltimore County. A uniform system “seems to be the most reasonable solution.”
Delegate Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the uniform standard idea “was never discussed . . . It’s not in the bill.”
But he said if a uniform standard is proposed when the committee hears the bill, it will be “considered.”
But some senators worry the bill will never pass if a uniform standard is added.
“I don’t want to chance losing the bill, and I think that might do it,” said Sen. Ida G. Ruben, D-Montgomery, who authored the Senate’s DWI bill.
She said the bill has a “better chance of passage” if it only includes the DWI blood-alcohol level adjustment.
Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, D-Baltimore, who co-sponsored Ruben’s bill, said a uniform system “would be the way to go. Or perhaps we should have both of them at .07. That would seem to be the logical thing to do.”
Sen. Larry E. Haines, R-Carroll, disagrees.
“That argument has been made to defeat the bill,” Haines said of Hughes’ .07 idea. It’s a “weak argument.”
Wendy Hamilton, a spokeswoman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said her “main interest right now is getting .08 passed.” She said Maryland should keep its two-tier system and focus on passing the .08 bill first.
State Police spokesman Rob Moroney declined to comment because he hadn’t seen the bill.
Richard Lurye, a Rockville lawyer who represents drunk-driving defendants, said the new law wouldn’t result in more arrests.
“In terms of my practice, I don’t think it will result in more clients or less clients,” Lurye said.
Reducing the DWI blood-alcohol level to .08 while the DUI limit is at .07 “does not make sense,” Lurye said. “It just seems that it creates more work for courts and judges.”
But, getting rid of the two-tier system or not, legislators will try to pass the bill before the 90-day session ends in April and cash in on the federal money.
“This is taxpayers’ money we’re talking about,” Hamilton said. “And our legislators are there to protect our interests. They’re not doing their jobs.”
“I don’t think we will be looking (at the .08 bill) again, so, this is our one shot,” said Delegate John A. Giannetti Jr., D-Prince George’s. “I hope all parties involved will be in the spirit of compromise.”