ANNAPOLIS – The drunken-driving-related deaths in Montgomery County last year of two recent high-school graduates and a police officer have spurred legislation to allow judges to imprison adults who host underage-drinking parties, permit drunken-driving victims to get punitive damages and increase the punishment for drunken motorists who kill people.
Other measures would require the suspension of licenses of drivers convicted of drunken driving and expand the use of ignition interlock devices, which require drivers to pass an alcohol breath test to start their cars.
“There has been a culture of liquor permissiveness in our state,” said Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, D-Montgomery and chief sponsor of three of the bills. “It is absolutely inexcusable for a drunk person to get behind a steering wheel.”
In June, Alex Murk and Calvin Li, both 18, were killed in a single-car crash after attending an underage drinking party. The graduates of Rockville’s Thomas S. Wootton High School were passengers in a car driven by Samuel Ellis, 19, whom police said was legally drunk while approaching speeds of 100 miles per hour on Dufief Mill Road in North Potomac.
Ellis is facing charges of homicide by motor vehicle, vehicular manslaughter and causing life-threatening injury while intoxicated; Kenneth Saltzman, whom police said hosted more than 20 underage drinkers at his North Potomac home, pleaded guilty to two counts of furnishing alcohol to individuals under age 21 and paid a $5,000 fine.
Saltzman had broken a state law prohibiting adults from “knowingly and willfully” allowing someone under age 21 from possessing or consuming an alcoholic beverage at the adult’s residence. The statute makes exceptions for members of the adult’s immediate family and for participants in a religious ceremony.
Del. David V. Fraser-Hidalgo, who represents North Potomac, said the law’s financial penalty is too lenient for one who hosts an underage-drinking party, particularly in an affluent area. He is chief sponsor of legislation to increase the penalty by adding a potential jail sentence of up to one year for a first offense and up to two years for each subsequent violation. House Bill 409 and Senate Bill 564 – titled “Alex and Calvin’s Law” – would also increase the maximum fines from $2,500 to $5,000 for a first offense and from $5,000 to $7,500 for each subsequent offense.
“There’s enough disposable income in this area” that the fine is meaningless as a deterrent, said Fraser-Hidalgo, a Democrat.
A jail sentence, by contrast, “can be a game changer,” he said. “The idea that you won’t be able to go to work … is completely different than pulling out your checkbook and writing a check.”
Fraser-Hidalgo said parents who host underage drinking parties have forgotten their familial role.
“In some cases, the parents think they’re being cool,” he added. “[But] we’re not our kids’ best friends. We’re their parents.”
Sending a message
Sen. Brian J. Feldman, chief sponsor of SB 564, said the availability of a jail sentence provides “additional tools in the toolbox” of Maryland prosecutors in cases of adults, usually parents, who host parties where they know underage drinking is occurring.
The legislation sends parents the message that “if you do this, you may in fact be doing more than writing a check,” added Feldman, D-Montgomery.
Voicing support for the measure, Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy said the potential for jail time puts “additional teeth into the law” that he believes fails to deter parents from hosting underage drinking parties.
“There should be consequences for these actions other than a fine,” McCarthy said. “Fines are wholly inadequate as maximum penalties.”
McCarthy equated drunken-driving incidents involving underage drinkers to lightning strikes: He does not know where the crashes will occur but he knows when the storm will hit.
The “rainy seasons” are spring break, proms and graduations, with parents too often hosting parties at which they know that alcohol will be consumed by their underage guests, he said.
“It’s not appropriate for any adult to take the risk with other people’s children,” McCarthy he said.
SB 564 and HB 409 will be the subject of public hearings Wednesday before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and the House Judiciary Committee.
While proposing stricter criminal sanctions, legislators have declined to address whether parents who host underage drinking parties could be held civilly liable for harm caused by or to their inebriated guests who get into a car. However, the Court of Appeals recently heard two cases addressing whether the state’s common law provides for such civil liability and is expected to render its decisions by Aug. 31.
With regard to civil litigation, the Senate on Friday passed a bill enabling drunken drivers to be held liable for punitive damages if they have a conviction or drunken driving within the past 10 years and caused the victim’s death or other injury by driving a motor vehicle while having a blood alcohol concentration of at least 0.15.
With the Senate’s 43-1 vote, attention shifts to the House of Delegates, where similar legislation is pending before the House Judiciary committee. Del. William C. Smith Jr., D-Montgomery, is chief sponsor of HB 864.
The availability of punitive damages is a rarity in Maryland law as they can generally be awarded only when the defendant acted with evil motive, intent to injure or ill will.
Raskin, the chief sponsor of SB 302, defended the expansion of punitive damages to drunken driving by citing Noah Leotta, the 24-year-old Montgomery County police officer who was struck and killed in December by a suspected drunken driver during a traffic stop involving another motorist. Leotta was on a police task force that enforced laws against drunken driving.
Luis Gustavo Reluzco, the suspected drunken driver, has been charged with negligent manslaughter in Leotta death.
Providing punitive damages would send “a statement by Maryland that we do not accept this kind of conduct, that it is intentional conduct,” Raskin said. “We have to send a very tough message to people: This [drunk driving] is simply taboo.”
Under SB 302, punitive damages would have to be justified by “clear and convincing evidence” and would be available only in cases where the victim has been awarded compensatory damages for injuries. The victims would also have to include a claim for personal damages in their complaint, and not first raise the claim during trial.
Judges would be permitted to review a jury’s award for punitive damages, which must be reduced if it is “disproportionate” to the award of compensatory damages or “disproportionate to the [driver’s] conduct, taking into account the gravity and continuing nature of the conduct.”
Sen. Edward R. Reilly, the only senator to vote against the measure, said punishment is generally the province of criminal law, not civil litigation.
“Drunk driving is a scourge on our community,” said Reilly, R-Anne Arundel. “[But] this is a fundamental change in the civil law.”
Raskin is also the chief sponsor of SB 763, which would increase from five to 15 years the maximum prison sentence for homicide by motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery, has cross-filed the measure as HB 735.
In addition, Raskin is chief Senate sponsor of legislation – named in Leotta’s memory – to require the Motor Vehicle Administration to suspend for 90 days the license of any driver upon a first conviction for drunken driving and for one year if he or she is again convicted of drunken driving within five years. Current law provides MVA discretion to suspend the license for up to 60 days on a first offense and up to one year for a second offense within five years.
SB 945 would also reduce from .15 to .08 the blood alcohol concentrations of convicted drunken drivers who must have ignition interlock systems installed in their cars for six months for a first offense and for a year for subsequent offenses. The .08 corresponds to the BAC level at which an individual is deemed drunk under Maryland law.
SB 945 has been cross-filed in the House of Delegates as HB 1342.
Del. Benjamin F. Kramer, D-Montgomery and the chief House sponsor of “Noah’s Law,” said the expansion of ignition interlocks to convicted drunken drivers with a BAC of .08 would be a recognition that “there is no ‘you’re partially pregnant” when it comes to drunken driving. “You’re either drunk or you’re not.”
McCarthy, the state’s attorney, said he welcomes the increased attention and support for legislation that would expand ignition interlock use but added they have come at a high price.
“It’s tragic that it has taken the death of this young officer,” McCarthy said. “It is sad that it takes the loss of a young life before we actually do something.”