Bill would create new penalty for fatal crashes

Drivers who make deadly mistakes could face potential prison time

February 23, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Widows and parents of Marylanders who were killed on the state's roads pleaded with lawmakers in Annapolis on Wednesday to give the victims of future traffic crashes a measure of justice they believe was denied their family members under the state's difficult standard for holding drivers criminally accountable for fatalities.

In an emotionally charged hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, families of crash victims urged passage of a bill that would create a misdemeanor offense known as "manslaughter by vehicle or vessel — criminal negligence" with a potential penalty of three years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

The offense would be an intermediate step between traffic charges a defendant can pay by mail and a full-blown prosecution for felony mansalughter.

Though more than 20 witnesses were nearly unanimous, the bill's sponsor was far from optimistic about its prospects. He noted that for many years, virtually identical bills have been brought before the committee only to die without a vote, thanks to Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr.

Ed Kohls, a Reisterstown man who lost his 15-year-old son, Connor, in a crash that resulted in a $1,200 fine for the reckless driver who killed him, expressed his anger directly to an impassive Vallario, a Prince George's County Democrat.

"We are furious that this bill has not been allowed to come to a vote," Kohls said. "It seems that you are telling us that Connor's life is worth nothing more than $1,200."

Kohls was joined in supporting the bill by grieving survivors including Weida Stoecker, a northern Baltimore County woman whose husband was killed by a negligent 17-year-old driver in 2007, and Lori Moser, widow of a State Highway Administration worker who was killed that same year in a work zone near Frederick.

The drivers found to be at fault in both cases resolved their cases by paying traffic fines.

Also testifying was Tamara Bensky of Owings Mills, whose husband was killed by a motorist while bicycling along Butler Road in Baltimore County.

Bensky choked back tears as she told lawmakers about her final, routine goodbye to her husband, Larry Bensky, last April 6, the day he was struck and killed by a vehicle.

"Never in a million years did I think I would end that day as a widow — a mother alone with two little girls," she said. Bensky told the panel the driver of the vehicle that killed her husband paid a fine of $507.50 for traffic charges and received three points.

Also supporting the bill are prosecutors, bicyclists' advocates and AAA Mid-Atlantic.

The challenge for lawmakers has been to find a formulation that gives prosecutors a tool to go after drivers whose driving lapses are more serious than typical traffic offenses but do not rise to the level of "wanton and willful disregard for human life" — a standard that courts have restricted to cases involving drunken driving or extreme speeding.

"This is an impossibly high standard to meet in many prosecutions," said Del. Luiz R. S. Simmons, the bill's lead sponsor and a Montgomery County Democrat.

Simmons said his legislation explicitly states that common negligence alone would not be grounds for prosecution under the proposed statute. He said his bill would create a standard he called "substantial negligence," defined in the bill as "a substantial deviation from the standard of care that would be exercised by a reasonable person."

Simmons said Maryland's current law is more lenient on drivers at fault in fatal cases than all but a handful of states. He said the language he is proposing has been in the books in 27 other states — including New York, Texas and Connecticut — for many years without being abused by prosecutors.

Despite the overwhelmingly favorable testimony on the bill, Simmons seemed pessimistic about the outcome.

"I don't have any false illusions," he said.

Simmons said the chairman has never explained to him precisely why he objects to the bill, but he understands that Vallario opposes the concept.

Vallario did not express any opinion about the bill during the hearing and could not be reached Wednesday night for comment.

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