Various Criteria Used To Test A State's Dwi Penalties Madd, Others Favor Revocation Of License

October 14, 1990|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe

No national ranking system currently exists to determine whether a state is tough or lenient on drunken drivers.

But the national organization of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other organizations cite numerous criteria for considering a state's DWI status.

National MADD plans to create a rating system that would rank states on the toughness of their penalties for drunken drivers. That project, however, could take at least two years to complete, said Anne Russell, assistant director of Public Policy and Government Relations for MADD in Hurst, Texas.

In the meantime, MADD, experts on drunken driving and local activists say the following criteria are needed to strengthen police enforcement and DWI laws and penalties: * Revocation of the driver's license upon arrest if the driver is legally intoxicated or refuses to take a Breathalyzer test.

In January, Maryland adopted an administrative "per se" law, allowing police officers to confiscate the driver's license of anyone charged with driving drunk. Police can hold a driver's license 45 days on a first offense and 90 days for subsequent offenses. People who refuse to take a Breathalyzer test will lose their licenses for even longer.

James P. Lang, public information officer for the state Motor Vehicle Administration, said he believes passage of the per se law has made Maryland tough on drunken drivers.

But according to general standards developed by national MADD, Maryland still falls far short of being a tough state.

MADD encourages states to adopt a .08 blood alcohol level as the drawing line for defining legal drunkenness. Maryland's standard is .10.

* An open-container law, which would make it illegal for any person riding or driving in a car to consume alcohol or carry an open alcoholic beverage container. Open containers could be transported in the trunk, however.

Twenty-two states currently have such laws. In Maryland, it is illegal for drivers to consume alcohol while operating a car, but passengers may drink.

* A dram shop law, which would make bars and restaurants responsible if they serve alcohol to "clearly intoxicated people" who later go out and injure someone.

Maryland has no such law. Bar and restaurant owners here say the insurance necessary, if such a law passed, would put many smaller establishments out of business.

However, legislative researchers in other states with dram shop laws say that has not been the case. Although large jury awards made against bar owners found guilty of negligence may have that result, passage of the law itself has not closed down businesses, said Peter Gerstenzang, a New York attorney who is an expert on DWI laws.

Russell said 35 states have dram shop statutes of some kind, and seven others have case law that allows an injured party to sue a negligent establishment. Maryland has neither.

"We're not talking about a situation where people have two or three drinks, and then someone sues a bar," Russell said. "We're talking about (bars) taking responsibility when there has been no server training, or obviously drunken drivers are allowed to continue to drink."

* Mandatory fines, which would increase with each subsequent offense.

MADD believes fines should be levied against all drunken drivers, with the money used for increasing law enforcement, officer training and alcohol awareness programs. Maryland has no minimum fines.

* Constructing a series of regional DWI detention and treatment facilities, modeled after one in Prince George's County. Judges in Howard County agree that a nearby facility would provide a sensible and effective option for sentencing drunken drivers, particularly repeat offenders.

"A series of these facilities throughout the state would be the answer," said Judge James N. Vaughan.

* Requiring more drunken drivers to attend Victim Impact Panels, where victims of drunken drivers tell their side of the story. Several judges who sentence drunken drivers to these panels say hearing the stories first-hand can be an invaluable lesson.

* Mandatory testing of drug and alcohol levels for anyone involved in a serious or fatal accident. Maryland's law states only that a driver involved in a fatal crash can be required by police to submit to a blood test.

* Regular use of sobriety checkpoints. Studies show that sobriety checkpoints are one of the "most effective, highly visual deterrents" available, said Russell.

* Progressive mandatory license revocation for repeat offenders.

Maryland MADD recommends that the state's sanctions be made tougher by increasing the length of revocation for repeat offenders or adding a permanent loss of the driving privilege after a set number of convictions.

Currently, the state Motor Vehicle Administration can revoke a license for up to six months on the first offense, one year on the second or 18 months on the third.

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