ANNAPOLIS – Maryland gets a little tougher on drunken drivers today, but not tough enough, critics say.
While both legislators and groups trying end drunken driving call the new laws a step forward, they acknowledge that they are just that, a good step.
The approved laws were weakened and nine other proposed bills languished in committee or never made it out of the General Assembly in the last session.
“We take small steps every year, a little bit at a time to make our roadways a little safer,” said Sen. Philip Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel, sponsor of one of the laws.
“We want repeat offenders to know that if you drive drunk in Maryland we will take away your license and put you in jail,” he said.
Jimeno championed the law that ends community service as a sentencing option for repeat offenders and mandates jail time. A second drunken driving conviction within five years now carries a mandatory minimum five days in jail, and a third conviction carries a minimum 10-day sentence.
The new law only applies to people convicted of driving under the influence, which requires a blood-alcohol level greater than .08, something Leslie Thomas, spokeswoman for the Central Maryland chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said is inadequate.
Maryland drivers may be arrested on lesser charges for driving with .07 blood alcohol content.
What happens in court, Thomas said, is that many defendants will plea bargain down to the lower charges, making community service still an option for them.
Jimeno called the new law a major step, but said he would like to expand the law to include all drunken drivers.
“John’s Law” also has its critics.
“It has no teeth,” said Nancy Kelly, MADD public policy liaison.
John’s Law was named for a former Navy cadet killed by a drunken driver who had been arrested and released earlier in the evening. The law prohibits drivers arrested for a drug-or-alcohol-related offense from operating a motor vehicle for 12 hours afterward. The penalty is eight points assessed on their driver’s license.
Sen. Ida Ruben, D-Montgomery, John’s Law sponsor, would have preferred the law require confiscation of the suspect’s car keys, incarceration until the driver’s blood-alcohol level lowers or impounding the car.
“What passed was something that was acceptable to both committees but the problem is there are no teeth in it. There is nothing to prevent them from driving,” she said.
Two other laws take effect today: allowing convictions in other states to count toward repeat offender penalties, and mandating treatment for people convicted of drunken driving who receive probation.
Still both the legislators and MADD said they’ll work for more and tougher laws in the future.
“We are very pleased that the laws keep coming up and getting passed, but they still need to be tweaked,” Thomas said. “We would like to see them stronger.” -30- CNS-9