Impaired drivers face tougher prosecution

New policy seeks jail for some 1st-time offenders

Howard County

December 17, 2003|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Howard County prosecutors have started taking a tougher stance against first-time impaired-driving offenders, recommending jail time in cases involving accidents, aggressive driving or a particularly high blood-alcohol level.

Under an office policy implemented last month, prosecutors have been told to ask the county's judges to impose a weekend at the Howard County Detention Center for certain offenders as a condition of a sentence of probation before judgment, an option that keeps points and a conviction off an offender's record.

The policy is an effort to persuade first-timers who may view their arrests as a stroke of "bad luck" to change their ways, said Howard State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone, who developed new guidelines after a meeting with the county's drinking-driver monitors.

"You'd be surprised at how much an attention-getter even one weekend in jail can be for your average individual," he said.

The jail request is one part of a broader written policy governing the office's handling of impaired-driving cases. But it is the biggest change in how the prosecutor's office does business, said Michael A. Weal, chief of the state's attorney's District Court division.

While prosecutors had routinely opposed probation before judgment for a second impaired-driving offense - a provision also spelled out in the new policy - they had not routinely asked for jail time for drivers with clean records, he said.

The new policy does not advocate jail time in all cases involving first-timers but instead recognizes more severe circumstances - injury or "serious" property-damage accidents, a blood-alcohol content 2 1/2 times the legal limit of 0.08 percent or higher, and particularly bad driving, officials said.

McCrone said he is most concerned by the number of repeat offenders in the system and by what he has seen as a "relaxation" of penalties given to drunken drivers.

That's not to say that the county's judges will go along with the change. In fact, Weal said, judges have agreed to the jail request only a few times since the policy change. And he said he expects that defense attorneys might opt to try their cases instead of agreeing to incarceration, clogging an already busy system.

Towson defense attorney Gary S. Bernstein, who handles impaired-driving cases across the state and teaches seminars on the subject, said that while the policy may be a "political" statement by the prosecutor, sentencing will still remain an "individual process" for judges.

"Judgment requires ... individual attention to the defendant," he said.

Prosecutors should be given a chance to evaluate cases without the constraints of a written policy, said Carol A. Hanson, the district public defender for Howard and Carroll counties.

"Our focus is on the individual and not on the policy," she said. " ... Policies don't seem to leave a lot of discretion with the prosecutors to take in the individual circumstances of the case. We believe in discretion."

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