ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s drunken-driving law would get a makeover under legislation approved by a House panel Tuesday.
The bill would reduce the drunken-driving threshold from .10 blood-alcohol concentration to .08 and change the name of the most serious offense to driving under the influence.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 16-5 to adopt .08 and to retain Maryland’s two-tier drunken-driving statute, renaming the lower threshold of .07 “driving while impaired.” Penalties for each tier would not change.
Now, DWI and DUI both carry a maximum $1,000 fine and 1 year in jail, said Lt. Bud Frank, State Police spokesman.
The changes are designed to bring Maryland into compliance with federal recommendations tied to $5.2 million in highway funds for fiscal 2004 and a $2 million federal safety incentive grant.
“It was very important to get (the bill) through this committee,” said Eric Gally, lobbyist for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Passing the drunken-driving legislation out of the Judiciary Committee and the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee has been “very tough,” Gally said, and getting Judiciary’s approval was “a great relief.” The Senate panel has not voted on the bill, yet.
Similar proposals died in Judiciary three years in a row, from 1997 to 1999.
Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s, and Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, announced Friday they would reduce the drunken-driving threshold to .08.
The measure is this year’s “most important” piece of legislation, Vallario said.
The House Judiciary Committee listened to more than 30 witnesses pressing the panel to approve more than 20 drunken-driving-related bills in a marathon hearing Feb. 21.
Baker and Vallario agreed Friday to urge their respective committees to pass three bills: the measure to reduce the drunken-driving threshold; legislation to toughen penalties for repeat offenders; and a ban of open containers in the passenger side of vehicles.
Ironically, Vallario’s committee killed the open-container ban Friday with a 14-6 vote.
“The wheel fell off,” said Vallario, who co-sponsored the measure. “I can only speak for myself, but not my committee.”
Without the threat of losing federal funds, the measure to reduce the drunken-driving threshold “would have been much more difficult to pass,” Vallario said.
Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who testified in favor of the measure, said she would have to review any changes in the legislation before commenting on the panel’s vote.
Delegate Kenneth C. Montague Jr., D-Baltimore, introduced the name changes later approved by the committee.
“We can’t say a person is intoxicated at .08,” Montague said. “The scientific community can’t say that.”
Montague wouldn’t have supported the measure if the major drunken-driving offense had kept its original name, he said.
“You can’t put an untruth in law,” Montague said, “and calling .08 a DWI would be an untruth.”
“Call it anything you want,” Gally said, as long as the penalties for surpassing the .08 limit stay the same.
But changing the terminology of a DWI offense to DUI is a “defense attorney’s dream,” because a drunken driver would not be considered intoxicated, said Delegate Donald E. Murphy, R-Baltimore County.
“This is not what getting tough on drunken-driving is all about,” said Murphy, who voted against the measure. “This is like participating in a bribe. . . I resent that we did this for the (federal) money.”
For Delegate Robert A. Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, passing the measure is “a public safety issue.”
“It’s actually somewhat frustrating that the federal government is dictating law that should be left to the state,” said Zirkin, who voted for the bill.
Federal money or not, Delegate Sharon Grosfeld, D-Montgomery, was glad the legislation survived the committee.
“I was concerned about my other colleagues who traditionally vote against the bill,” Grosfeld said. “Some of (them) were persuaded by the federal mandate. If that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes.”