ANNAPOLIS — Police could confiscate vehicles and impound them for up to 12 hours if the driver has been charged with drunken driving under pending legislation in the Maryland General Assembly.
The bill, prompted by the death of John R. Elliott, a 22-year-old U.S. Naval Academy graduate from New Jersey killed by a drunken driver in his home state in July 2000, intends to prevent people who come to pick up drunken drivers after an arrest from returning them to their cars.
Elliott’s parents, William and Muriel, persuaded lawmakers to pass “John’s Law” in New Jersey last year, and appeared at the State House Friday to meet with lawmakers and begin pushing the same legislation for Maryland.
The couple will also attend the University of Maryland’s men’s basketball game Sunday to promote a designated driver program.
The driver who swerved his sport-utility vehicle across a double-yellow line and collided head-on with their son’s car had been taken back to his vehicle by a friend who picked him up at the police station just hours after he was arrested for driving under the influence.
The blood-alcohol content of the SUV driver, who also died, was more than twice the legal limit when he was arrested.
“John’s Law” would require anyone who takes custody of a suspected drunken driver after an arrest receive a written warning of liability should that driver get back behind the wheel while still impaired.
If the custodian refuses to sign the warning, police would be authorized to impound the drunken driver’s car for 12 hours.
William Elliott said he would like to see the law adopted nationwide, but for now he is taking it one state at a time.
Elliott approached Delegates David G. Boschert, R-Anne Arundel, William A. Bronrott, D-Montgomery, and Delegate John A. Giannetti Jr., D-Howard, last August about sponsoring the bill in Maryland. Boschert quickly agreed it was a “common sense law” that could save lives.
“The beauty of this compared to other DUI bills is that it puts the accountability factor squarely on the person who bails them out,” Boschert said. “It’s saying, be responsible for (the drunken driver), don’t help them out just because they’re a friend or family member.”
Elliott hopes Maryland will become the second state to adopt the law because his daughter, Jennifer, a University of Maryland senior, is a frequent driver in the state, and his son’s former girlfriend, Kristen Hohenwarter, is also from Maryland.
Passing the law here is pivotal if it is to be adopted by other states, Elliott said.
“I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the eyes of the nation may be focused on this law being introduced in Maryland,” he said. “The law in New Jersey was passed, but we also live in New Jersey. There might have been some sympathy factor.
“In Maryland, you don’t necessarily have that same sympathy factor. I believe it will pass here on its merits.”
Drunken driving in Maryland is considered a “serious traffic violation” punishable by up to $1,000 in fines or one year in jail, police said.
But drunken drivers may be released into the custody of “responsible adults” after an arrest, and police are not authorized to impound their vehicles, said Sgt. Thornnie Rouse of the Maryland State Police.
“We haven’t had much of a problem with that here,” Rouse said. “If we think someone is taking (a drunken driver) back to their car, we’ll send somebody to follow them.”
The State Police would support the passage of John’s Law, Rouse said, to help keep dangerous drivers off the roads.
The Elliotts will promote the HERO Campaign Sunday, a designated driver program they began also in honor of their son.
The campaign takes its name from the Human Education Resource Officer program at the Naval Academy, a character development program where Elliott served as a peer counselor for four years and was named HERO of the year as a senior.
Students will wear HERO T-shirts and hand out blue and gold ribbons, the program’s symbol.
“We think the term HERO reflects on the person who is the designated driver,” Elliott said. “We believe that a designated driver would have saved our son’s life the night he was killed, and that person would have been a hero to us.”