Volunteer Scours Courthouse For Facts On Drunken Drivers

January 26, 1992|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff writer

If you were to watch Margaret Wason rambling through the County Courthouse, you'd easily mistake her for a well-known lawyer.

As Wasonwalks the courthouse corridor, she chats with clerks, consults with prosecutors and sometimes directs defendants, victims and jurors to courtrooms.

But the 46-year-old Bel Air resident is no lawyer. Just a woman very dedicated to a cause: getting and keeping drunken drivers off thecounty's roads.

For nearly two years, Wason has been volunteeringtime to monitor cases involving drunken drivers in the county courtsfor a local Mothers Against Drunk Driving group.

"I will do this until I see some justice," Wason said. "It's important to me. I've seen enough tragedies."

Her primary work involves collecting information for a report on sentences given to convicted drunken drivers that she hopes will lead to stiffer penalties. The report, to be issued by MADD, should be done in about six months and will be sent to the national office for review.

Wason spends up to seven hours nearly every week day in the county courts, while balancing a home life for her family. She often goes grocery shopping and runs errands in the early morning, before arriving at the courthouse by 8:30. Some days she's up by 5 a.m. to ensure family duties are met.

In the course of a typical day, Wason will sit through an average of 20 drunken-driving cases. The mother of three, Wason plans to go to law school at the University of Baltimore this fall. That will require that she reduce her time on the MADD project.

"I think what she does is something that's valuable to the public," Assistant State's Attorney M. Teresa Garland said of Wason's volunteer work. "It informs the public what goes on in court."

Wason was injured in a traffic accident involving a drunken driver 30 years ago. She underwent three years of therapyfor a concussion that caused her to lose her memory and still experiences lapses brought on by stress.

The volunteer rarely talks about the accident and her injuries; even fellow MADD members don't know about the incident.

But the accident is not the main reason for Wason's work on the project. She didn't get involved in MADD until April 1990. That's when she met the mother of one of her 17-year-old daughter's classmates who had been killed in an October 1989 accident caused by a drunken driver.

Because of Wason's interest in legal matters, she immediately began working as a MADD court monitor. Wason starts her day by stopping by the State's Attorney's Office to collect the day's court docket.

She goes down the list of defendants, checking off drunken-driving cases she is following. She then goes to the courtrooms of the District Court, where most drunken driving cases are handled.

Quietly seated in one of the benches, she collects information on defendants.

Wason fills out a one-page report on all defendants, recording their name, age, sex, marital status and level ofeducation. The defendant's blood-alcohol content level and whether they are a repeat offender is also noted.

Wason also keeps track ofthe outcome of each case, specifically whether judges sentence defendants to jail and probation or order them to complete counseling and community service.

The information will help Wason and MADD definea typical drunken driver in the county when she completes the report. MADD also will be able to determine sentencing trends in Harford and the sentencing patterns of each Harford circuit and district judge.

After tracking nearly 600 cases, Wason said she has learned that few first-time offenders receive jail time for their crime. The maximum sentence is one year in prison for first offenses.

Wason estimates that about one-third of all defendants are repeat offenders and sentences for them vary widely.

But District Judge John S. LandbeckJr. said judges must have flexibility when sentencing drunken drivers because of the differing circumstances of each case.

"(The MADD report) is not going to change anybody's sentencing philosophy," Landbeck said. "A judge needs to act individually in each case to do what's necessary for each case."

But Wason believes convicted drunken drivers need to face stiff penalties so they realize the danger they pose to society.

As an example of the kind of penalties needed fordrunken driving, Wason pointed to a first-time offender who was sentenced to 30 days in jail and ordered to undergo counseling by District Judge Lawrence S. Lanahan last week.

"Not only does he get the treatment he needs, he gets punished," Wason said.

"Very rarely do I leave here happy," she said. "But I like doing this because I see apromise and a hope that things will improve in the system."

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