ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland House of Delegates Thursday approved a measure making a suspected drunken-driver’s refusal to take a breathalyzer test admissible evidence in court.
A similar proposal barely passed the House last year, 74-53, but was killed by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Thursday’s measure, approved 129-3 without debate, is one of more than 20 proposals introduced this session to reduce drunken-driving accidents in the state. More than 200 people were killed last year in drunken-driving accidents.
With Thursday’s passage and Tuesday’s approval of a bill lowering Maryland’s drunken-driving threshold, prospects for tougher laws against intoxicated drivers are improving.
The House Judiciary Committee Tuesday approved a bill to lower the drunken-driving threshold from .10 blood-alcohol content to .08. The same committee killed similar legislation three times in the past four years.
Maryland will lose $5.2 million dollars in federal highway funds for fiscal 2004 if it fails to reduce its drunken-driving threshold to .08 by 2003.
Several drunken-driving bills were heard in Judiciary this year and Chairman Joseph F. Vallario, D-Prince George’s, announced Friday a joint effort with Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, to pass the .08 measure and another to ban open containers in the passenger side of vehicles.
However, Vallario’s committee killed the open container bill the same day.
Making the refusal to take the breath test admissible evidence would provide a jury or judge “with more complete information” and would “help in the prosecution” of suspected drunken-drivers, said Anne Ferro, Motor Vehicle Administration administrator.
The approval cleans up the law, said Joseph Sikes, state chairman of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
“Right now it’s a big loophole where anybody stopped can refuse to take the test,” he said. “It defeats the purpose of having a law.”
Even one opponent of the .08 proposal wants the refusal of taking a breath test admissible evidence in court.
“It enhances enforcement, which is what we’ve always been (supporting),” said Thomas B. Stone Jr., lobbyist for the Restaurant Association of Maryland.
But critics of the breath test legislation said it’s unconstitutional to allow prosecutors to tell a judge or a jury a suspect refused to take a breath test.
“People have the right to protect themselves against self-incrimination,” said Delegate Michael R. Gordon, D-Montgomery, one of only three delegates to vote against the measure.
“Mark my word: It will be reversed by (the Court of Appeals).”
In response, the bill’s lead sponsor revealed his ace in the hole.
Delegate John A. Giannetti Jr., D-Prince George’s, kept in a folder a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision in case his proposal was challenged on the House floor.
“The admission into evidence of a defendant’s refusal to submit to a blood-alcohol test does not offend his Fifth Amendment right against self- incrimination,” wrote the Supreme Court in South Dakota v. Neville.
“More people understand now that it’s not a constitutional issue,” Giannetti said. The admissibility into evidence of a breath test refusal already exists in 46 other states, he said.
“Maryland would be the 47th,” Giannetti said. “I hope.”