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drew Wisniewski, an operations manager for Smart Start of Maryland, demonstrates how an ignition interlock device works last month in Annapolis. The devices are put in cars to stop drunk drivers from operating their vehicles. Maryland lawmakers want to require the devices for first-time offenders, rather than just ones arrested with more than twice the legal limit of alcohol in their systems. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

Senate panel considers expanded use of ignition interlock devices

ANNAPOLIS – The drunken-driving-related death of a Montgomery County police officer last year has spurred legislation to expand the use of ignition interlock devices for people convicted of driving drunk.

The devices prevent vehicle ignitions from working unless the motorist passes a breath test for sobriety. Under a 2011 law, the devices are required on the cars of Marylanders who were convicted of drunken-driving with blood alcohol concentrations of .15.

Senate Bill 945 would expand the use of interlock devices for individuals convicted of drunken driving with a BAC of .08, the state’s minimum standard for being legally drunk. But supporters say a companion version of legislation pending in the House of Delegates (House Bill 1342) has already been weakened, and they urged a Senate committee Thursday to keep its bill intact.

The bills have been dubbed “Noah’s Law” in memory of Montgomery County police officer Noah Leotta, 24, who was struck and killed in December by a suspected drunk driver during a traffic stop involving another motorist. Leotta was on a police task force that enforced laws against drunk driving.

Luis Gustavo Reluzco, the suspected drunk driver, has been charged with negligent manslaughter in Leotta’s death.

“The safety of the people should be the highest calling,” Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, chief sponsor of SB945, said Thursday in quoting the Roman philosopher Cicero. “It’s a solemn responsibility we have.”

Maryland’s current interlock law has saved lives but at least 130 people are killed annually in the state from drunken driving, Raskin told the Judicial Proceedings Committee, on which he sits.

“We’re not handing out heroism badges” for the current law, said Raskin, D-Montgomery. “We have more work to do.”

But criminal-defense attorney Leonard R. Stamm said the measure would unduly punish the many first offenders who are just over the legal minimum and are unlikely to be drive drunk again after their initial arrest.

“The arrest is an extremely traumatic experience,” said Stamm, author of the treatise “Maryland DUI Law.”

“The arrest is intended to be an intervention” for social drinkers. added Stamm, of Goldstein & Stamm P.A. in Greenbelt. “The best ways to bring down those [drunken-driving] numbers are with education and treatment.”

‘Neutered’ legislation

The Senate committee’s consideration of the bill came as the House of Delegates prepares to begin floor debate Friday on its version of the measure, which cleared the House Judiciary Committee last week. The committee deleted from HB 1342 a provision that would require ignition interlock devices be installed on the cars of drunken-driving suspects who refused to take a breath test to measure their BAC.

Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger said the House committee’s deletion weakened the bill and urged senators to approve the legislation with the provision intact.

“Montgomery County lost a great cop,” Manger told the Senate panel. “Don’t give an incentive for people to refuse a breath test.”

Rich Leotta, Noah’s father, said the House committee “neutered” the legislation with its deletion.

Drunken drivers are “playing Russian roulette with people’s lives,” Leotta told the Senate panel.

The Senate bill would reduce from .15 to .08 the blood alcohol concentrations of convicted drunk 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 legislation would also 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 the discretion to suspend a license for up to 60 days on a first offense and up to one year for a second offense within five years.

“Please don’t let Noah’s death be in vain,” Marcia Goldman, Noah’s mother, told the Senate committee. “The next drunk driver may kill your son or daughter. Drunk drivers do not discriminate.”