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Md. panel Oks measure to allow prison for hosts of underage drinking parties

Sen. Brian J. Feldman. (file)

Sen. Brian J. Feldman is chief sponsor of a bill that would let judges imprison adults who host underage drinking parties. (file)

ANNAPOLIS – The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Wednesday recommended that the full Senate approve legislation that would allow judges to imprison adults who host underage drinking parties.

In an unusual move, the committee voted its recommendation while the hearing on the measure, Senate Bill 564, was still going on. People waiting to testify in favor of the measure broke into applause.

Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who made the mid-hearing motion of approval, said, “We cannot accept losing dozens of young people every year as the price of doing business in an alcohol-saturated culture.”

SB 564 was spurred by the drunken-driving related deaths of two teenagers in June.

At the abbreviated hearing, Montgomery County police officers urged lawmakers Wednesday to pass the measure.

Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger said the current law’s maximum penalty of a $2,500 fine provides no deterrent for the adult hosts, who are generally parents of at least one of the youngsters in attendance. By enabling judges to sentence the host to year in jail, the pending legislation could cut the prevalence of these parties, which occur every weekend of the year, Manger added.

“Parents have no fear of hosting these parties,” Manger told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “It [the penalty] is no more than a fine.”

Manger’s comments followed the deaths of Alex Murk and Calvin Li, both 18, in a single-car crash on a residential road 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.

Manger called the fine — $5,000 for two dead teenagers – a woefully inadequate penalty.

“This would have been a perfect case for a judge to have handed down jail time,” Manger said.

Tom Didone, who heads the Montgomery police force’s alcohol enforcement division, said the legislation would capture the attention of “ostrich parents,” those who, though knowing the party is going on in the basement, remains upstairs.

“We have parents who are hosting these parties” believing they are “safe” because the youngsters are in the home, Didone said. But overseeing teenagers is “like herding cats” who will get loose and drive away, he added.

A jail sentence would be “for those egregious cases” in which an inebriated teenager gets hurt or harms someone else, Didone said.

“That deterrent effect will give parents the strength to stand up to their children,” he added. “A lot of parents don’t want to say, ‘no.’”

By contrast, failure to enact the legislation would leave the fine-only penalties in place and the parties will continue, Didone said.

“People can pull $2,500 from their pocket but they can’t pull one year of jail from their other pocket,” he added.

The legislation, Senate Bill 564, would add a potential jail sentence of up to one year for a first offense and up to two years for each subsequent violation. SB 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.

“The current maximums are wholly inadequate,” said Sen. Brian J. Feldman, D-Montgomery, the bill’s chief sponsor. A fine alone is “not much of a deterrent, a little slap on the wrist.”

SB 564 has been cross-filed in the House of Delegates as House Bill 409. The chief sponsor of HB 409 is Del. David V. Fraser-Hidalgo, D-Montgomery.

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, Maryland’s top court has recently heard two cases addressing whether the state’s common law provides for such civil liability.

The Court of Appeals is expected to render its decisions by Aug. 31. The two cases are Nancy Dankos (F/K/A Nancy Davis) v. Linda Stapf, No. 55 September Term 2015, and Manal Kiriakos v. Brandon Phillips, No. 20 September Term 2015.