ANNAPOLIS – A Senate committee Thursday killed a bill to make it a felony for drivers to flee the scene of an accident, even as the parents of a hit-and- run victim were preparing to testify before a House committee on the measure.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee voted 6-4 to kill the bill, just hours before the parents of Rajiv S. Vaidya were to testify about his December death in Silver Spring, when a driver hit their son, stopped to fix his fender and then drove off.
Hit-and-run is now a misdemeanor carrying a maximum penalty of five years in jail and a $5,000 fine.
“We are absolutely disgusted by the Senate action,” said Vaidya’s mother, Vanitha, after hearing the Senate committee’s vote.
Mrs. Vaidya, who had driven from Philadelphia to Annapolis to testify before the House Judiciary Committee with her husband Shailendra, said she could not believe Maryland’s General Assembly could be “so corrupt.”
But opponents of the measure thought the proposed penalties were too harsh.
The felony bill would impose a penalty of up to 10 years in jail and a $10,000 fine for drivers who flee an accident where another person is killed. The penalty would be a maximum of two years in jail and a $6,000 fine for fleeing an accident that injured another person. It would also be a felony charge.
“I certainly think people need to stop,” said Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, D- Montgomery, and a member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. But the “penalty is too harsh.”
Forehand cited an accident in Virginia in which a driver hit a young woman in the fog and drove away, thinking she had hit a deer. Jane L. Wagner of Fairfax County pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year in the county jail for hitting and killing 15-year-old Naeun Yoon last March.
When asked why she voted against the measure, Forehand at first said she had voted for it and thought the committee had passed the bill. After checking through her records, she realized she had voted against the bill and that it had died.
Regardless of how Forehand may have voted, the lead Senate sponsor of the measure said he will ask Judicial Proceedings to reconsider its vote.
“Obviously it’s the wrong decision,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen Jr., D- Montgomery. “What they left is a law that is a perverse incentive for people to leave the scene” of an accident.
In Vaidya’s case, the 26-year-old aspiring writer was standing on a median in Silver Spring on a Friday afternoon in December when he was hit by a driver who witnesses said only stopped to pick up pieces of his car before driving off. Vaidya died three days later.
Pedro Gutierrez of Alexandria, Va., was later charged with leaving the scene of a fatal collision — a misdemeanor.
Montgomery County Police said six of 16 pedestrians killed by drivers in the county last year were hit-and-run victims.
“We want to live in a civil society. Not a hit-and-run society,” said Delegate William Bronrott, D-Montgomery and the lead sponsor of the House version of the bill. He had more faith in Maryland’s legislature than the Vaidyas.
“In time, this will become law,” he said.
The Vaidyas are not so sure.
The Judiciary and Judicial Proceedings committees “don’t want to do anything to protect the rights of citizens,” Mrs. Vaidya said. “But they are ready to protect the rights of criminals.”