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Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Robert A. ‘Bobby’ Zirkin, D-Baltimore County. (File photo)

Senate panel weakens bill enabling hosts of drinking parties to be jailed

ANNAPOLIS – The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Wednesday approved watered-down legislation that would permit parents and other adults to be jailed for up to one year for providing alcohol to or hosting drinking parties attended by minors who become impaired and seriously injure themselves or others in driving from the event.

The committee’s action represents a dramatic weakening of bills that the Senate and House approved earlier this General Assembly session in memory of two recent high-school graduates killed in a drunken-driving crash after attending an underage drinking party.

Both the Senate- and House-passed versions would have added 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 a drinking party attended by those under the age of 21. The Senate measure would have included as a jailable offense the furnishing of alcohol, while the House bill would not.

The Senate committee’s weakening was unexpected. Sen. Brian J. Feldman, D-Montgomery and the bill’s chief Senate sponsor, had predicted late last month that the panel would simply re-affirm the Senate’s stronger bill and hammer out the difference with the House bill at a conference of senators and delegates.

But Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, the Senate committee’s chair, said he became concerned that the original bill could have resulted in college seniors being jailed for drinking beers with underclassmen.

That earlier legislation “would have put a lot of people in the paddy wagon from college,” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, said at the committee’s voting conference. “You can’t put a college senior in jail for giving a beer to a college junior.”

Zirkin said the changed legislation would still accomplish the same goal as the original measure, discouraging parents and other adults from hosting underage drinking parties.

The amended bill “creates an incentive not to serve alcohol and if you do, take the keys” from underage attendees, Zirkin told his committee colleagues.

The measure, House Bill 409, was prompted by the deaths last June of Alex Murk and Calvin Li. 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.

The amended bill, however, would have had no effect on the incident for which it is named.

The measure – introduced as “Alex and Calvin’s Law” – would address harm caused to and by minors who were served alcohol. But neither Murk nor Lee, though too young to lawfully drink alcohol, were 18 years old.

Ellis is facing charges of negligent homicide by automobile while under the influence, negligent manslaughter by automobile and causing life-threatening injury by vehicle while under the influence; 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.