'Per se law' to make it tougher to beat DWI charge

April 30, 1995|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,Sun Staff Writer

Harford residents who choose to drink alcohol and drive will find it harder to avoid legal punishment if they are arrested on charges of driving while intoxicated, authorities say.

A state law that goes into effect Oct. 1 establishes guilt if a suspect's blood alcohol content from breath test results is 0.10 or greater.

Called the "per se law," it means that a prosecutor needs only a minimum breath test result of 0.10 to prove the suspect is guilty of drunken driving. Under current law, a failing blood-alcohol test can merely be offered as evidence of guilt -- along with any evidence of innocence presented by the defense.

Mark W. Nelson, an assistant state's attorney, said Harford prosecutors generally follow certain guidelines when agreeing to plea bargains with defendants accused of drunken driving.

Assuming there has been no accident or injuries involved with a DWI arrest, the guidelines allow leniency for first-time offenders and become harsher for subsequent offenses, Mr. Nelson said.

"On a first offense, if the defendant is willing to plead to the statement of facts, we will not oppose probation before judgment," the prosecutor said. "Some form of evaluation and alcohol treatment is required during a probation period monitored by the county's Drinking Driver Monitor Program.

Judges also are inclined to order the defendant to complete the Victim Impact Program, he said, and "some even order community work service and may order an alcohol restriction on the defendant's license."

Again assuming that no accident or injuries are involved, Mr. Nelson said, prosecutors seek a 30-day jail sentence for repeat offenders "and generally get it."

Defendants facing DWI charges a third time are looking at 90 days to six months in jail, he said. Four-time offenders can expect to serve six months to a year or more, he said.

In a recent case in Harford District Court before Judge Emory A. Plitt Jr., the defendant was a 44-year-old Bel Air woman who had two prior DWI convictions. She had registered 0.34 on a breath test, more than three times the state's minimum 0.10 standard.

She was convicted, fined $1,000 and sentenced to one year in jail.

Judge Plitt suspended all but three weekends of the jail sentence. The judge also suspended half of the fine and placed the defendant on three years of supervised probation after the completion of her jail sentence.

Judge Plitt also ordered the woman to remain alcohol-free, submit to random urinalysis, to attend the county's Victim Impact Program and to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as directed after an evaluation by the county's Department of Mental Health. If she ever gets her license back, she will have an anti-drunken-driving device put on her car. Before starting the engine, the driver must breathe into the apparatus. If the driver has been drinking, the device will prevent the engine from being started.

According to the statement of facts, to which the woman pleaded not guilty, a Bel Air police officer stopped the woman's 1979 Porsche about 5:55 p.m. Nov. 13, 1994, after pacing it for more than a mile on Baltimore Pike at speeds in excess of 50 mph in 35 mph and 30 mph zones. The officer said the woman staggered after getting out of her car and used the car's door to steady herself.

The officer said the woman told him she had had two brandies and two cups of decaffeinated coffee before driving. The woman failed two sobriety field tests and was belligerent before being arrested and taken to the Inter-Agency Processing Center for the breath test, the officer said.

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