Baltimore County's new crackdown on repeat drunken drivers was designed for people such as Michael J. Ercole, a highway bridge inspector who was sentenced this week for his eighth and ninth such charges in 19 years.
Ercole, 46, of Cockeysville, was convicted of drunken driving and related charges Monday in Owings Mills District Court for the eighth and ninth times since 1972, said county Deputy State's Attorney Howard B. Merker.
Judge Marshall Seidler sentenced Ercole to two years in state prison, $4,000 in fines and three years' probation after prison, Merker said. The county prosecutor had asked for a six-year prison term because Ercole is a multiple offender. Seidler did sentence Ercole to six years, but suspended all but two years.
Nicholas V. Broccolino, Ercole's lawyer, called it a "tragic case."
"He's a very intelligent man whose life has just been completely messed up" by his alcohol problem, Broccolino said. He said his client feels he belongs in a hospital getting treatment rather than in jail.
County police Wednesday announced a crackdown on the most severe drunken drivers, watching more closely those with three convictions or more. If the repeat offenders are caught again, police will be prearmed with their complete records and terms of probation. If an officer sees a multiple violator break the terms of his probation, or drink despite an alcohol prohibition on his license, he can arrest him as soon as he turns the ignition key.
Ercole was in court Monday because of two incidents.
He was arrested June 22, 1990, by a State Police officer who saw Ercole's car suddenly swerve on the outer loop of the Beltway near Windsor Mill Road. That started a chain reaction that forced a tractor trailer onto the highway shoulder.
The trooper reported that Ercole was wobbly on his feet and scored .18 on an alcohol breath test, Merker said. In Maryland, .10 is considered intoxication.
Ercole's driving license included an absolute ban on his use of alcohol. The license had been reinstated by the state Motor Vehicle Administration in October 1989 after the latest of 16 suspensions and three revocations against him.
On Nov. 7, 1990, two weeks before Ercole was to go to court in the Beltway accident, a Baltimore County police officer arrested him at the intersection of York and Cranbrook roads after watching his car hit a median barrier while turning off York.
The officer reported that Ercole pulled into a fast-food drive-through lane, parked and staggered from the car. He refused a breath test that time, Merker said, but an open bottle of rum was found on the car seat and Ercole showed all the signs of inebriation.
"I'm amazed he hasn't killed anyone or been involved in a serious accident," Merker said. Broccolino said Ercole was fine for several years after his seventh conviction in June 1986.
Ercole voluntarily entered Perry Point Veterans Hospital for 30 days of treatment after his last arrest in November when revocation of his $10,000 bail was requested, Broccolino said. He stayed out of jail until Monday, when he was taken into custody after the new convictions for drunken driving, violating the no-alcohol provision of his driver's license, improper lane change in the first incident and drinking while driving in the second.
Michael Gimbel, director of Baltimore County's Office of Substance Abuse, has said that most people don't understand the power of alcohol addiction, causing them to deny their problem or to continue to drive even if they have received repeat drunken-driving convictions.
After Baltimore County builds its planned 100-bed drunken-driving prison, more local treatment will be available to judges unsure whether to consign an alcoholic to prison just to get him off the streets, Gimbel said.