Pa. death reinforces driving issue

Authorities say accused is an illegal immigrant with a Md. license

General Assembly

February 10, 2007|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

A Gaithersburg truck driver who authorities say was in the country illegally was arraigned this week outside of Pittsburgh on charges of vehicular manslaughter, an incident that advocates of tighter restrictions on Maryland's driver licenses said reinforces a troubling trend.

Since November, at least three people have been killed by illegal immigrants who were issued driver's licenses in Maryland, authorities say. For the fifth year in a row, lawmakers are set to debate whether the state should continue to issue driver's licenses to those who are in the country illegally.

This time, the discussion is likely to be framed by bills focused on the federal Real ID Act. The two-year-old law sets national standards for the issuance of state driver's licenses and identification cards, essentially prohibiting states from issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

"Illegals shouldn't be here in the country, and then we legitimize them being here by issuing driver's licenses," said Sen. Janet Greenip, an Anne Arundel County Republican.

Greenip has introduced a bill that would bring Maryland into compliance with the Real ID Act by prohibiting drivers from receiving Maryland licenses if they cannot prove they are in the country legally.

But some lawmakers and immigrant advocates say that such measures would punish people seeking a better life and reduce road safety because many immigrants would drive without licenses.

Yesterday, a joint resolution was introduced in the House of Delegates requesting that Congress repeal the act, following the lead of Maine.

On Thursday, a 31-year-old Honduran diplomat was killed on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, 20 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, when the vehicle in which she was traveling was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer. The truck driver, Sam P. Thompson, a Ghana native who lives in Gaithersburg, was charged with vehicular homicide.

Pennsylvania State Police said that Thompson, 32 -- who has been charged with several traffic violations in Maryland, according to computerized court records -- was in the country illegally. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Washington confirmed that the agency had no record of Thompson attaining citizenship, though an investigation was pending.

However, Thompson did have a valid Maryland driver's license and a commercial trucking license, obtained in May 2006 via a transfer of his licenses from Kentucky, a Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration spokesman said.

An employee with his employer, Transcare Systems Inc. of Bowie, told the Associated Press that the company believed Thompson was in the country legally but referred questions to an attorney.

Published reports said that Thompson, who was hauling glassware, denied responsibility for the crash at a brief arraignment Thursday.

"I didn't cause this," he said, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "I wasn't following too closely. That car passed me. ... I'm in my lane."

Thompson told a judge that he has been in the United States since 1998 and has lived in Maryland for 2 1/2 years. He denied allegations that he is an illegal immigrant and said he has valid work permits.

The victim, Nuria Ortiz Navarro, a trade and investment promotion counselor for the Honduran Embassy in Washington, was pronounced dead at the scene. She was the daughter of a Honduran journalist and had worked for the embassy for five years.

"The embassy just lost a very great asset for our country," said David Hernandez, a spokesman for the Honduran Embassy. "We lost a very great friend."

Thompson had previously been charged with more than a dozen traffic violations and other criminal charges.

In October 2005, he was charged in Frederick County with operating a commercial vehicle without a license and driving a commercial vehicle with a suspended license from another state, court records show. The charges were dropped.

A 36-year-old Silver Spring woman has a lawsuit pending against Thompson in Montgomery County Circuit Court alleging that he backed a commercial tractor-trailer into her vehicle in 2003.

"I had a hard time finding him, and our process server just recently found him after months and months of working on it," said her attorney, Richard S. Lundin.

In November, a Marine corporal and his companion were killed in Howard County by an alleged drunken driver who was an undocumented immigrant. He had obtained his license in North Carolina, a state that until recently was known for having lax policies on drivers' licenses.

Maryland remains one of a handful of states where illegal immigrants can legally obtain licenses. A 2003 opinion by the attorney general's office concluded that nothing in existing law precluded illegal immigrants from getting licenses in Maryland, provided they could produce other documentation the state requires, such as proof of identity and state residency.

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