Judicial System Must Crack Down On Drunken Drivers

THE OBSERVER

February 23, 1992|By Mark Guidera

Between Sept. 2 and Nov. 28 last year, county police were kept busy indeed by a woman who repeatedly drank before taking to county roads.

Police charged the woman, a 39-year-old health-care worker, with drunken driving on Sept. 2, 14, 27 and 30, Oct. 20 and Nov. 28.

When police pulled her over on Nov. 28 she was driving illegally on a suspended license.

Drunken driving is no different than if the driver put a loaded gun in his hand and began walking down public roads blindfolded, all the while pulling the trigger. He might not hitsomeone with a bullet, but he also might.

If someone were caught doing this numerous times by police, wouldn't you expect a judge to put the offender in jail?

The woman will serve no jail time and payno fine in the five offenses she admitted guilt to in court last week. District Court Judge John L. Dunnigan saw in his wisdom to suspendthe fines and jail time he gave her -- she "walked" as the courthouse parlance would put it.

Mary E. Phagan's lawyer pleaded for compassion from the court. His client was experiencing "psychological" difficulties in her life at the time, the lawyer argued.

To be fair, she did serve 90 days for a conviction on the Sept. 30 incident in which she was charged with driving under the influence (a lesser chargethan driving intoxicated), resisting arrest and malicious destruction.

The Motor Vehicle Administration can revoke her license, but that remains to be seen.

If any case -- and there are many in Harford courts to choose from -- is a good example of the need for minimum sentencing guidelines in Maryland for repeat drunken drivers, it's this one.

People who drink and drive put every driver in danger. Public Service messages about the threat drunken drivers pose simply aren't getting the message across.

The maximum sentence for first-time drunken-driving offenders in Maryland is one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. It's a rare defendant who gets that in Harford, said Kimberly Schaffel, coordinator for the county chapter of MADD, which has been monitoring drunken-driving cases for several months.

Jail time for even repeat offenders is rare statewide, a study conducted by TheHoward County Sun in 1990 reported. That study, published in a series on drunken driving, found that 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 in 1989.

Minimum sentencing guidelines pushed for unsuccessfully for years by Maryland MADD groups include:

* First-time offense: automatic two days in jail and $1,000 fine.

* Second offense: confiscate driving license or impound vehicle; $2,000 fine.

* Third offense: revoke driving license with no chance of reinstatement; $3,000 fine.

* Establish a national computerized registry of repeat drinking and driving offenders that motor vehicle departments and police could access to prevent repeat offenders from obtaining driving licensesin other states.

Schaffel and other advocates of minimum drunken-driving sentences argue that those measures would act over time as a strong deterrent to the average citizen. Chronic drinkers probably would not be deterred, they concede.

Aberdeen police clearly are doing a superb job saving innocent drivers and pedestrians from harm's way by their aggressive campaign to catch drunk drivers. This campaignhas resulted in 313 arrests of drunken drivers in 1991 (up from 150 in 1990) and 60 so far this year.

But efforts like this need judicial support at trial.

It's also time for the county Liquor ControlBoard to get aggressive about the drunken-driving problem in HarfordCounty.

Local liquor boards can exercise powerful control over how licensed liquor establishments operate. But the local liquor board has chosen not to exercise this power to help police address the drunken-driving problem.

In fact, it seems they've skirted the responsibility. Harford MADD members met with the liquor board in January torequest that when the board renewed or issued new licenses, it wouldgive the establishment a package about how to set up designated driver efforts. The board initially agreed, but then backed out.

Not only should the board take up this program, it should be launching undercover investigations to ferret out liquor-serving establishments that over-serve customers and then suspend their licenses.

Coupled with mandatory sentencing guidelines, such measures would help keep drunken drivers from pulling the trigger while blindfolded on our roads.

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