House panel acts to close loophole on drunk drivers

April 02, 1994|By C. Fraser Smith and John A. Morris | C. Fraser Smith and John A. Morris,Sun Staff Writers

Spurred by grieving students who had lost a friend to a suspected drunken driver, the House Judiciary Committee moved yesterday to close a legal loophole that allows some motorists suspected of intoxication to refuse a test that shows how much alcohol they've consumed.

The committee voted unanimously to make the test compulsory in any accident where there is a "life-threatening injury." In doing so, it set aside an unofficial but almost inviolable rule that prohibits the panel from considering a matter twice in the same session. It had killed a similar bill earlier in the session.

But then came the students with their campaign.

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., the Prince George's Democrat and committee chairman, said he expects the bill to be enacted easily when it reaches the full House next week. The bill already has passed the Senate by unanimous vote.

Mr. Vallario, a lawyer, said he believes the bill will have a significant impact.

"Hopefully, it will result in a lot more tests being taken," he said. Under current Maryland law, the so-called blood alcohol content test is mandatory whenever a crash results in a fatality. If death is not immediate, however, the driver may elect to refuse the test.

That was the case with Annie Davis, a 12-year-old student at Magothy River Middle School. She died Oct. 30 from injuries she received the day before in a crash involving a suspected drunken driver who refused to take the test. To be valid, the blood alcohol test must be taken within two hours of the crash. Annie Davis lived more than a day.

Police and prosecutors say the test is an important tool in court, where judges have come to expect that blood alcohol test results will be available. In serious cases, involving charges such as vehicular manslaughter, blood alcohol level is important as a measure of the offender's intent and state of mind.

After their loss, Annie Davis' friends at Magothy River and her mother, Susan Edkins, petitioned the assembly for a tighter law. The House version of a bill that would have helped to close the loophole died just as they were beginning their campaign, and many predicted that they would be unable to revive it.

"The big difference was the children -- and the mother," said Evelyn D. Armiger, legislative chairperson of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Ms. Armiger has been lobbying to close the loophole for eight years. "It's a giant step for Maryland," she said.

"The people who don't take the test are the repeat offenders. They know the system and they know when to refuse."

Student lobbyist Erin Scheide, 12, who met with Mr. Vallario in his office, called the committee's action "great."

In the committee yesterday, members discussed possible problems for police officers at the scene of an accident. How would they know what a "life-threatening injury" is?

"If we err," said Del. Joel Chasnoff, D-Montgomery, "we err in favor of the victim."

If an error is made, the committee concluded, defense lawyers can make that case in court.

"If they go over the line, their evidence is going to be tossed out," said Del. James M. Harkins, a Harford County Republican.

Mr. Vallario said: "I guess when it comes down to 'life threatening,' it's like pornography. You know it when you see it."

Del. Phillip Bissett, an Anne Arundel Republican, authored the bill that failed earlier. He said he and Sen. Phillip Jimeno, an Anne Arundel Democrat, worked together on new wording to make the measure acceptable to the committee.

But Mr. Bissett, too, credited the student lobbyists.

"They had the hurting side [of the story] and they needed a way to channel it. They certainly did it the right way," he said.

Mrs. Edkins, Annie's mother, found the committee's action encouraging.

"I am happy that people see the need for change. Maybe we will realize we have to take responsibility," she said.

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