Court settles drunken driving issue State may suspend license, convict later

October 17, 1995|By DENNIS O'BRIEN | DENNIS O'BRIEN,SUN STAFF

The state may suspend a drunken driver's license and convict him of the offense in a later hearing without violating constitutional safeguards against double jeopardy, the state's highest court ruled yesterday.

The Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that because the suspension is intended to protect the public, it is a "remedial" step and does not qualify as punishment.

"This conclusion is drawn from the purposes served by licensing systems themselves, to protect the public from unscrupulous or unskilled operators," Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy wrote in a 34-page opinion.

State laws allow for automatic, temporary license suspensions for anyone who refuses a roadside breath test or scores .10 percent or higher on a breath test given during a traffic stop.

Montgomery County Circuit Judge J. James McKenna dismissed the driving while intoxicated conviction of Ernest Jones this year after Mr. Jones argued that the process meant being punished )) twice for the same offense. Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. appealed Judge McKenna's ruling.

Advocates for stiff drunken driving penalties greeted yesterday's decision with relief.

"It's great news," said Annie Powell, a spokeswoman for the Central Maryland Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Anne Arundel County.

Mr. Curran said the 1989 law allowing for temporary license suspensions is a key component of the state's drunken driving enforcement efforts. Losing the law "could have devastated our ability to deal with the drinking driver," he said.

Mr. Jones, a 59-year-old telecommunications engineer, was charged after he scored .27 percent in a breath test. On Aug. 31, 1994, an administrative law judge suspended his license for 30 ++ days. He was convicted in Montgomery County District Court on Nov. 15, 1994.

Henry M. Jansky, a lawyer for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an insurance and consumer safety group, said yesterday's ruling is consistent with decisions reached by the highest courts in Hawaii, Maine, Arizona, Nebraska and New Mexico.

Legal challenges were filed across the country to drunken driver license suspension laws after a series of recent Supreme Court decisions set new guidelines for civil penalties in criminal cases, he said.

Leonard R. Stamm, Mr. Jones' lawyer, said his client must now be retried in Montgomery County and could be sentenced to a year in jail and lose his driver's license.

Mr. Stamm said he probably will ask the Supreme Court to hear the case because he sees the decision as a "major blow" to Fifth Amendment protections against double jeopardy.

"Most of us are happy to live in a country with a government that can only prosecute you once for the same crime," he said. "Unfortunately, I think the government here was somewhat greedy."

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