Last October, a 31-year-old drunken driver from Sykesville came for sentencing before Howard County Circuit Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr. His record, already tainted by a drunken driving conviction in 1981 and six subsequent traffic violations, suggested he was in line for tough punishment.
Instead, he left the courthouse not required to spend a day in jail, pay a cent in fines or perform one hour of community service.
Not a single point was added to his driving record -- shielding the offense from his insurance company -- and his driving privileges continued uninterrupted. His punishment: For 18 months he was required to meet with a probation officer briefly each week.
The penalty Sybert judged appropriate -- the lightest one available -- is called "probation before judgment." The "PBJ," as it is known in legal circles, clears the drunken driving conviction from the offender's record, and, in the opinion of many police and prosecutors, amounts to less than a slap on the wrist.
The PBJ is used sparingly in many Maryland counties and is unheard of in many states. But its use is commonplace in Howard County courts.
A survey by The Howard County Sun of more than 300 local drunken driving cases heard in 1989 and 1990 shows that judges here use the PBJ sentence far more than any other in sentencing drunken drivers. It is only one element underscoring a clear pattern of leniency by most county judges toward those who drink and drive.
Howard County ranks among the most lax of the state's 23 counties in punishing first-time drunken drivers, based on statistics from the Annual Report of the Maryland Judiciary. And Maryland, despite steps to toughen its penalties for drunk drivers earlier this year, continues to hold its place as a lenient state in penalizing those who drink and drive, when compared to others across the country.
"We're a weak county in a weak state -- something has got to be done to get tougher on drunk drivers," said Peggy Kruhm, an activist with Mother's Against Drunk Driving who routinely sits in on local DWI -- driving while intoxicated -- hearings.
Information accumulated from county court cases, judicial and legislative reports and numerous interviews shows that: * About 60 percent of those convicted of driving drunk in Howard County last year got a PBJ sentence, leaving those drivers' records clear of the offense at the state Motor Vehicle Administration. With a PBJ sentence, a judge finds the driver guilty, but does not record a guilty verdict. No points are assessed against the driving record.
Judges in Howard County use the PBJ in drunken driving cases at least twice as often as judges in the majority of Maryland counties.
Many critics -- including prosecutors and judges from other counties -- believe the PBJ is an inappropriate punishment for most drunken drivers.
But in Howard County courts, even repeat offenders have received PBJs, as have some drunken drivers who caused auto accidents and others who police said resisted arrest.
* Of more than 2,000 people found guilty of driving drunk in Howard County last year, only about 150 -- fewer than 8 percent -- got any jail time. Half of those sentenced to jail -- about 75 -- spent their time in a treatment program in a minimum security jail in Prince George's County.
Many drivers with as many as three previous convictions spent no time in jail.
Statewide, about 15 percent of all people convicted of drunken driving in District Courts and more than 30 percent of those convicted in Circuit Courts were ordered to jail last year.
* A growing number of DWI defendants use the opportunity for a jury trial as a way to manipulate an easier sentence. Defendants and their lawyers know they can postpone judgment day by requesting a jury trial, which the back-logged courts cannot schedule for months.
State law requires that on sentencing, DWI points be recorded on a driver's record effective the date of the offense. Since the points are active for only two years, delaying a final resolution of the case can keep the points from surfacing on the driving record. By the time a case is concluded, the points might already have expired. Such delays don't fool the state, which can still revoke a driver's license. But they can shield the offense from insurance companies and shorten the revocation period.
* Although state law allows fines up to $1,000 for first and second offenders, and up to $2,000 for people with two or more prior convictions, fines of no more than $100 to $500 are typically issued in Howard County, even for repeat offenders. In the courtrooms of two county Circuit Court judges, drunken drivers routinely walk out without paying a nickel.
In many other states, fines are mandatory for drunken drivers and escalate quickly with each subsequent offense.
Police and prosecutors, who insist they have tried to get tough on drunken drivers, complain that the system often breaks down in the courtroom.