Drunken drivers to be watched closely

January 16, 1991|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Evening Sun Staff

Drunken drivers in Baltimore County who have at least three convictions are to be targeted for special attention, including surveillance, by county police DWI Task Force officers, according to an announcement by county police today.

The new effort, which begins immediately, initially will target 39 county drivers who have at least three convictions for drunken driving, out of 3,500 who have been arrested in the county more than once for driving while intoxicated since 1986, police said.

The 10 task force officers already mount special patrols on highways with statistically high numbers of drunken-driving arrests or accidents. And county Deputy State's Attorney Howard B. Merker for several years has personally prosecuted the worst repeat drunken-driving offenders, some with eight or nine prior convictions.

The new program will allow the officers to identify the repeat offenders by computer. After they alert the state's attorney's office of the driver's record, the officers will gather driving and criminal records on the person in case he or she is caught again.

Sometimes, county officers will conduct surveillance on these people, to make sure they are not violating license restrictions or conditions pf probation. "We're determined to neutralize those individuals whose total disregard for drunk-driving laws and highway safety jeopardizes lives and property," Police Chief Cornelius J. Behan said.

Merker said that a task force officer could arrest a driver with a no-alcohol restriction on his license, if he followed the driver into a bar and watched him take a drink, then get in his car and turn his ignition key.

Shirley Johnson, Maryland coordinator of victims services for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, praised the new policy and said it should cut down on drunken-driving accidents. "We're very enthusiastic about it. There are a lot more repeat offenders than we realize," she said.

Mike Gimbel, director of Baltimore County's Office of Substance Abuse, said, "Many people don't understand the power of addiction," and the denial that can lead an alcoholic to drive repeatedly despite multiple drunken-driving convictions.

"The need is to get them into treatment," Gimbel said. The county's planned 100-bed drunken-driving prison will help, he said, by making it easier for judges handling repeat drunken-driving cases to sentence the offenders.

Police spokesman Sgt. Stephen R. Doarnberger said the county law office has approved the planned surveillance.

Stuart Comstock-Gay, director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, had no initial objections. He warned, however, that there are "potential problems."

The type of surveillance could present civil liberty problems, Comstock-Gay said. "If there's a car in front of someone's house, obviously following a person to work or the store," that could be intrusive.

Also, surveillance of a driver not on probation or parole, who has fully paid his legal debt to society, could raise invasion-of-privacy questions, Comstock-Gay said.

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