Fighting Dui Fatalities In Md.

Hopkins Student's Hit-and-run Death Expected To Bolster Campaign For Tougher Laws

November 01, 2009|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

To address the seemingly intractable problem of fatalities related to drunken or impaired driving in Maryland, the General Assembly convened a task force to review what some advocates had long complained were inadequate laws.

Their 18-month review resulted in more than 40 recommendations addressing public education, law enforcement, treatment initiatives and the law. The legislative proposals were incorporated into Gov. Martin O'Malley's agenda this year, and many were enacted.

But advocates such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Washington Regional Alcohol Program say more must be done, and they complain that some key bills this year were watered down.

MADD plans to push next year for legislation mandating ignition interlock devices for those convicted of driving under the influence, even first-time offenders. Drivers must breathe into the device and produce a sober result to start their cars.

Other states, including Pennsylvania and Virginia, have enacted laws that allow for vehicles or license plates to be seized from repeat offenders, though such proposals haven't gained traction in Maryland.

"Our laws are piecemeal, and they're not strong enough," said Caroline Cash, executive director of the Maryland chapter of MADD. "We have the technology right in front of us to make drunk driving a thing of the past."

The recent hit-and-run death of a 20-year-old Johns Hopkins University student is expected to bolster support for tougher laws.

Thomas L. Meighan Jr., who has eight drunken-driving convictions in Maryland, has been charged with traffic offenses in connection with the Oct. 16 collision. Meighan, who says he lent his vehicle to a friend and was not the driver who hit Miriam Frankl, has not been charged with drunken driving in the Oct. 16 case.

Meighan's license has been suspended or revoked repeatedly, and he has been under the ignition interlock program in the past.

An average of 220 people died annually in Maryland between 2004 and 2007 in crashes related to drunken or impaired drivers, according to the task force, which noted the number of deaths has remained at a certain level in a "plateau effect."

In general under Maryland law, first-time DUI offenders face up to one year in prison and fines up to $1,000. Those with three or more convictions face up to three years in prison and a fine of up to $3,000.

Ignition interlocks are often ordered in cases where the driver refuses to take a Breathalyzer test, has a blood-alcohol level of twice the legal limit or has a record of repeat offenses.

Eleven states have enacted mandatory interlock programs. Such a bill passed unanimously in the Maryland Senate this year but died in the House of Delegates. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. said he would consider the bill next year but that he has concerns, such as how to handle drivers from other states.

Kurt Erickson, president of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, said that one problem in Maryland is that thousands of drunk drivers every year receive probation before judgment, which can mean that licenses aren't suspended and offenders' records are eventually expunged. One bill passed by the state legislature this year limits the use of those sentences to once every 10 years for repeat offenders.

Erickson and other advocates complained that another bill was watered down to require one-year license suspensions for repeat DUI convictions in a five-year period but not for the lesser charge of driving while impaired, which is triggered by a 0.07 blood alcohol concentration, just below the 0.08 level for a DUI.

One proposal that hasn't garnered wide support is one that would allow for the seizure of vehicles. Such laws must be balanced against property rights and due process, said Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, who served on the task force. She acknowledged the desire to prevent tragic cases, but said the law can go only so far.

"Can we stop all bad behavior?" she said. "The answer is no."

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