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Sen. Brian J. Feldman (File photo)

‘Alex and Calvin’s’ bill likely headed to Senate-House conference

Dispute involves furnishing alcohol to underage drinkers

ANNAPOLIS – A Senate-House conflict over whether and to what extent adults could be jailed for hosting underage drinking parties is likely headed to conference over the chambers’ respective legislative responses to the drunken-driving related-deaths of two recent high-school graduates last June.

“We have our bill and they have their bill,” said Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “We’ll meet in conference.”

Zirkin’s comments followed the testimony of Sen. Brian J. Feldman, chief sponsor of the Senate’s bill, before the House Judiciary Committee.

Feldman, D-Montgomery, testified Tuesday he expects the House panel to essentially discard his bill in light of a House-passed measure that prohibits a jail sentence if the adult host merely furnished the alcohol but did not knowing and willfully host the underage drinking party.

“It will be between you and JPR,” Feldman told the House panel, using the Senate committee’s nickname. “I respect the committee process. I will defer to this committee and JPR to make the right call.”

Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, said later that his committee will retain the Senate-passed version, which provides for a potential jail sentence for the furnishing of alcohol. The impasse would force a conference of senators and delegates to hammer out the difference.

A unified bill, if it emerges, would be submitted to votes by the House and Senate.

The legislation, House Bill 409 and Senate Bill 564, was prompted by the deaths last June of Alex Murk and Calvin Li, both 18, in a single-car crash on a residential road after attending an underage drinking party. The recent 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 negligent homicide by automobile while under the influence, among other counts; 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, which currently carries no jail sentence, makes exceptions for members of the adult’s immediate family and for participants in a religious ceremony.

Both the Senate- and House-passed versions would add a potential jail sentence of up to one year for a first offense and up to two years for each subsequent violation of knowingly and willfully hosting an underage drinking party. But the Senate measure would include as a jailable offense the furnishing of alcohol, while the House bill would not.

The House Judiciary Committee placed the furnishing exclusion in the bill as an amendment.

Del. David Moon, D-Montgomery and a supporter of the amendment, said the exclusion is designed to ensure that college seniors cannot be jailed for drinking beers with underclassmen.

Both the Senate and House bills – titled “Alex and Calvin’s Law” – would 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 Senate passed its version, SB 564, on a 46-0 vote on March 3; the House passed HB409 on a 136-3 vote on March 17.

Del. David V. Fraser-Hidalgo, D-Montgomery, is the chief sponsor of HB 409.

While proposing stricter criminal sanctions, legislators have declined to address whether parents or other adults who host underage drinking parties could be held civilly liable for harm caused by or to 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.