ANNAPOLIS – Even facing the possible loss of federal highway money, some House lawmakers said Wednesday they couldn’t support a prohibition on open containers of alcohol in cars, arguing the measure punishes responsible drivers.
The General Assembly’s passage of an open-container law of alcohol in cars is key to the release of up to $15 million in federal funding for state highway construction.
But many members of the House Judiciary Committee said the bill would not help solve the state’s drunken driving problems, and could instead punish responsible drivers and restrict personal freedoms.
Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, endorsed the bill, one of 15 such bills to tighten drunken driving laws in Maryland scheduled to be presented to the committee.
Thirty-four states already have open container laws, Townsend noted.
“It’s time for Maryland to recognize the obvious,” she said. “We should do it as well.”
But opponents feared the bill could unjustly punish responsible, and even designated, drivers.
Delegate Kevin Kelly, D-Allegany, a Cumberland attorney, said he recently served as designated driver for a group of friends attending a Baltimore Ravens game. Kelly’s friends had some drinks in the car, he said, yet if he were pulled over, he would be subject to a $500 fine under this bill for acting responsibly.
“Under those circumstances, why would you want to (penalize) me?” Kelly said.
Federal statutes require states to have open container alcohol and repeat drunken driver laws in place or risk having a portion of their federal highway construction funds redirected into other state safety activities each year.
In addition to securing federal funding, the bill aims to “change the culture” of drunken driving in Maryland by removing temptations and distractions for drivers by having alcohol consumed in cars, supporters said.
“Now to be a designated driver, you can’t allow other people in your car to be drinking,” said Doug Gansler, state’s attorney for Montgomery County. “This bill helps us with a loophole we see every day where a driver is drinking and simply passes an open container off to a passenger.”
Statewide consistency in the law is also an issue, Gansler said. Twenty- two of 24 jurisdictions in Maryland have statutes prohibiting open containers of alcohol in passenger areas of cars.
But the counties punish the offense differently, including Anne Arundel, where it is a jailable offense.
But several committee members said they believed responsible drivers rather than drunken drivers would too often be the victims under the bill.
“This bill undoes what we’re trying to do with responsible driving,” said William H. Cole IV, D-Baltimore.
By late afternoon, the committee had heard just three other bills on its schedule, including one that was withdrawn.
Another, sponsored by Delegate Sharon M. Grosfeld, D-Montgomery, would impose tougher sanctions on repeat drunken drivers, increasing penalties for multiple offenders from two days in jail or 80 hours of community service to five days in jail or 30 days of community service. It also would impose a one- year driver’s license suspension.
And the last would allow police to confiscate vehicles and impound them for up to 12 hours if the driver has been charged with drunken driving.
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, would make returning drunken drivers to their cars a criminal offense.
The measures come one year after Maryland passed two significant drunken- driving laws, lowering the blood-alcohol content for drunken driving from .10 to .08 and permitting prosecutors to advise courts when defendants refuse to take a breath test.