The Kids Who Conquered Annapolis

April 18, 1994

It was the stuff of TV movies: A class of sixth-grade children, moved by the death of a classmate at the hands of a drunken driver, ventures into the hard-boiled world of legislative politics and walks away holding lawmakers' hearts -- and a new law in memory of their friend -- in their hands.

This extraordinary scene played out just days prior to the General Assembly's adjournment, when Magothy River Middle students watched from the House balcony as the bill for which they lobbied -- to make it harder for drunken drivers to escape the consequences of their actions -- cleared the last major hurdle of the democratic process. They had begun working on the bill after their friend, 12-year-old Annie Davis of Arnold, died last fall in an alcohol-related crash. When the last vote was counted, they jumped to their feet and burst into applause. Then the delegates stood to pay tribute to them with a standing ovation. It was a moment all the cynicism in State House could not pollute.

Afterward, some speculated that the bill passed largely because this is an election year and lawmakers are susceptible to popular ideas -- not to mention the wide-eyed earnestness of grieving school children. Perhaps there is something to this.

But it does the Magothy River students an injustice to write off their bill as mere feel-good fluff. It closes a loophole that has allowed drunken drivers to refuse blood-alcohol tests unless a death occurred at the scene, providing less evidence to prosecute them on serious vehicular charges if a victim died later. In Annie's case, the man whose truck hit her mother's van refused to be tested at the scene; by the time Annie died a day later, it was too late to determine how much alcohol he had consumed. He was charged with driving while intoxicated, but not with the more severe charge of auto manslaughter.

Under the new law, motorists suspected of drinking and involved in a crash resulting in "life-threatening injury" must take the test. If a person is seriously drunk and dangerously negligent, there will be a persuasive piece of evidence to use.

Del. Phillip Bissett said the children deserve our gratitude. They also deserve our respect. They braved the intimidating, labyrinthine world of state politics and managed to accomplish something worthwhile. Many adults in Annapolis last week wished they could claim credit for as much.

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