ANNAPOLIS – An array of legislation intended to keep Maryland’s citizens safer, including teen driving restrictions and witness intimidation penalties, passed the General Assembly by Monday’s deadline and now awaits Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s signature.
“I think the Judiciary (Committee) worked overtime to give prosecutors new weapons in the fight against crime and domestic terrorism,” said House Judiciary Committee member Delegate Luiz R.S. Simmons, D-Montgomery.
“I think more came out of the General Assembly than I was expecting,” said Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn F. Ivey.
Teenagers will no longer be allowed to talk on the phone while driving and will be restricted as to who and how many passengers may ride in their vehicle.
The learner’s permit period will be longer, as will the provisional license period. The 18-month provisional clock restarts if teens receive moving violations or are caught violating the driving curfew or seat belt requirement.
Another approved bill limits to one the number of times a young driver can avoid conviction on an offense, called a probation before judgment, without restarting the provisional period.
Ehrlich failed to win approval for one of his teen driving bills, which would have revoked the young driver’s license if he or she was found under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Ehrlich said he will reintroduce it next year.
“It just got caught up at the end,” the governor said.
The House Judiciary Committee chairman supports the legislation.
“I was disappointed that at the last minute we did not get the teenagers’ drunk driving bill done,” said Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s.
Probably the most contentious crime measure to pass was the witness intimidation bill, which includes a controversial “hearsay” provision that many opponents, Vallario included, felt infringed on the constitutional right to confront an accuser.
Statements by a witness not in court to testify because a defendant was proved to have intimidated them now must be signed under the compromise used to advance the measure.
There is still some question whether the bill will have much effect.
“The one on the hearsay exception was a nothing burger,” said Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery.
During the interim, Ehrlich said his staff will determine whether another bill is needed to strengthen the hearsay provision.
But, Simmons, who helped broker the compromise legislation, said, he will not support such a move until information can be gathered on the new law’s success.
“The intimidation bill doesn’t help anyone,” Vallario said, referring to the plight of witnesses who have been hurt or threatened. The bill does help prosecution of such crimes.
“What we really need are more funds for protecting our witnesses,” Vallario said.
The governor said he is undecided whether to introduce a proposal to protect witnesses.
While gang members often are responsible for intimidating witnesses, prosecutors say, the term “criminal gang” doesn’t appear in Maryland law. A bill awaiting Ehrlich’s signature will add that term and make it a felony to coerce or threaten a person to stay in a gang.
“We passed the gang bill, which is a new thing,” Vallario said. “That was a good bill that was needed.”
The General Assembly also took another look at drunken driving laws, approving penalties for those drivers who refuse a breath or blood test. Convicted impaired drivers who refused tests would face a maximum of 60 days in jail.
“I fully expect the refusal rate will slowly come down,” Simmons said, “as police on the scene will tell the driver that refusal will result in greater penalties.”
The Assembly also passed an expansion of the collection method for the state’s DNA database.
However, the Assembly left ballistic testing of guns in limbo by stripping its funding from the 2005 budget, but failing to pass a separate bill to end the program. That bill was shelved after Delegate Neil Quinter, D-Howard, tried to amend it with a ban on assault weapons.