ANNAPOLIS – The man who killed Charles Auer’s 21-year-old daughter Sarah was fined just $300 for negligent driving. Now, Auer, of Poolesville, told lawmakers it’s time for a change in the law concerning vehicular homicides.
“I lost my beautiful, wonderful daughter Sarah, and the truck driver received a charge for $300,” Auer told the House Judiciary Committee Thursday.
Multiple bills have been filed this year by various delegates and senators to address a loophole in Maryland law concerning vehicular homicides.
Currently, a driver responsible for a fatal accident can be charged with either vehicular manslaughter, where it has been proven a person operated a vehicle in a grossly negligent manner, or a common traffic violation. There’s no middle ground.
The Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association favors a novel, for Maryland, approach: making a driver found criminally negligent in a fatal accident guilty of misdemeanor manslaughter. That measure’s prime sponsor is Delegate Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery.
Montgomery County State’s Attorney Douglas Gansler represented the association at the hearing.
“Simmons’ bill is our preference. It is a solution that makes sense, it tries to define what is aggressive driving and puts it on the jury to decide,” Gansler said.
Delegate Pauline Menes, D-Prince George’s, is sponsoring HB 171, which makes aggressive driving a crime of homicide if a person is convicted of two or more of 15 crimes delineated in the bill.
She has championed this issue, which has failed to make it out of the Judiciary Committee, for many years. HB 171 is similar to the measure she filed last year, with a few adjustments made on recommendation of the committee.
“I think we’ve got to keep at it until we find a way of dealing with an offense that is not now being prosecuted successfully,” Menes said.
It’s uncertain whether Menes’ proposal would have changed the fine for the truck driver who killed Sarah Auer. In December 2003, the young woman was killed instantly after a 60,000-pound dump truck made a left turn against a traffic signal and struck her car.
The driver was hustling back to pick up another load so he could make more money, said City of Rockville Mayor Larry Giammo.
The driver didn’t bother to show up for a traffic hearing and therefore received a “failure to appear” judgment, according to Auer’s written testimony.
His fine equated to just two dump truck loads, according to Giammo who appeared at the hearing representing the Maryland Municipal League, which supports the proposed legislation.
Simmons’s bill, HB 137, may have covered her death because it would provide a broader definition, leaving a great deal more to the prosecutor’s discretion.
This latitude might have helped prosecutors with a case involving a 7-year-old boy who was struck and killed while standing on a sidewalk with his family in Ocean City.
Ryan Green, according to Officer Charles Bean, had just finished watching July 4 fireworks when a young woman, who was driving at or above the posted speed limit, decided to take off her shoes while driving.
To avoid hitting a car she made a “conscious decision to drive up on the sidewalk,” Bean said. She pinned the boy between a telephone box and her car. The “woman who killed a 7-year-old boy walked away with a $1,000 fine.”
A number of other states have similar legislation to HB 137, including Ohio, Louisiana, New York, Texas, Maine and Utah. In D.C. and Wyoming, drivers can be convicted with an even lower standard of proof, an ordinary act of negligence.
In a later interview, Gansler said, Simmons’s bill “creates a new standard of what is criminal negligence. In some ways it is new law. It creates a new standard of how do we define criminal negligence.”
The bill has 9 other sponsors in Judiciary and Simmons is optimistic about its passage.
“Historically, the committee has been conservative, but I did feel and continue to feel today that there is an emerging consensus of passage of this approach,” Simmons said.
But until then, “many more Maryland families will learn to their anger and dismay the current weaknesses in Maryland law,” Auer said as he beseeched the members to ensure the bill made it out of the committee.