ANNAPOLIS – Nearly a third of the people arrested for drunken or drugged driving in Maryland refuse to take a breath or blood test, often enabling them to plead to a lesser charge — and that’s a problem according to one Maryland lawmaker.
Delegate Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery, has introduced HB 103 to impose greater penalties on drivers convicted of driving under the influence who refused to take a breath or blood test.
The convicted driver would then face a fine of up to $500, a prison term up to six months or both. The arresting officer would be required to inform the driver of the additional penalties should the test be refused.
State Police report that of the 22,597 people arrested in 2004 on suspicion of impaired driving, 31.5 percent refused to be tested, enabling many of them to plead to a lesser penalty than had a test established their intoxication level.
The problem of driving under the influence wasn’t just a problem in 2004. Annually between 22,000 and 24,000 people are arrested in Maryland, with more than 6,000 of them refusing testing, according to State Police.
Simmons’s proposed legislation isn’t the first proposal to attempt to end this practice.
This year’s bill is designed to resolve issues that the House Judiciary Committee chairman said weren’t addressed in last year’s version.
“You could be convicted for refusal, not the underlying issues,” Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Calvert, said. “He’s addressed the issue that was a concern.”
But Vallario said the committee will wait to see what prosecutors want in the bill before progressing.
Such caution is in keeping with the committee’s history.
“Historically the Judiciary Committee has always been a conservative committee,” Simmons said. “It has not made changes in the law unless you can demonstrate a need to make that change.”
AAA, MADD, The Century Council and Washington Regional Alcohol Program all testified briefly Tuesday.
“Without question, ‘career drunk drivers’ in Maryland are well aware of the state’s most frequently used escape route in attempts of beating either a DUI or DWI rap in the state: the refusal of a breath and or chemical test,” said WRAP President Kurt Erickson in written testimony.
A drunken driving conviction in Maryland, where a driver has .08 percent blood-alcohol level or greater, can carry fines of up to $3,000 and up to a prison term of three years, as well as a license suspension.
Drivers convicted of a lesser offense can go to jail for up to two months and fined up to $500.
Certain aspects of the bill concern Judiciary Committee member Michael D. Smigiel Sr., R-Caroline, because he is a civil libertarian. But “I do support it. I want to do everything I can to curtail drunk driving,” he said.
“A lot of fine tuning (is needed but) it’s a good bill,” Smigiel said. But he added there needs to be a clear understanding of how it will work and how prosecutors will use it especially with recidivists.
But another legislator said the bill should not pass. Delegate Curtis S. Anderson, D-Baltimore, said the current penalty of a license suspension for those who refuse the test is enough.
He added that there is a new increase in court costs from $10 to more than $100 to contest the suspension.
“Once (the hearing cost increase) starts filtering through, I think you will see fewer people refusing to take the test,” Anderson said.
However, Simmons was pleased with the hearing. “Let me say that with regard to the bill, in all candor, I am optimistic about its passage,” Simmons said. “I feel that there is an emerging consensus in the committee that something should be done about the driver who refuses to take the Breathalyzer test.”