ANNAPOLIS – Accused drunk drivers who are not convicted but receive probation before judgment in a Maryland court would be required to use ignition interlock devices for six months under coming legislation.
Sponsors say the measure will close a loophole in the state’s landmark 2016 law named for a police officer struck and killed by a drunk driver.
“Noah’s Law” covers only motorists convicted of drunk driving and requires that for six months they use the interlock devices, which prevent vehicle ignitions from working unless the driver passes a breath test for sobriety.
As a result, an accused drunk driver who plea bargains to obtain or otherwise receives probation before judgment need not use an ignition interlock unless assigned to in the judge’s discretion. That outcome results in the strong possibility that unassigned motorists will drink and drive again, say sponsors and advocates, including Noah’s father.
The legislation, expected to be introduced in the coming days, would remove that judicial discretion and require interlock use for six months.
“Closing this critical loophole will make our roads safer in Maryland,” said co-lead sponsor Sen. William C. “Will” Smith Jr., D-Montgomery and vice chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
House Judiciary Committee Vice Chair Vanessa E. Atterbeary, the other lead sponsor, said the bill would put Maryland “in the forefront” of combating drunk driving.
“We can save lives,” added Atterbeary, D-Howard.
But attorney Leonard R. Stamm, who defends alleged drunk drivers, objected to the coming legislation.
Imposing an ignition interlock as a probation-before-judgment condition would improperly restrain judicial discretion and could stigmatize motorists for whom driving is essential to their livelihoods, said Stamm, author of Maryland DUI Law (published by Thomson West).
“In general, it is a mistake to take discretion away from judges,” he added. “There are many cases in which first offenders would unfairly be forced out of their jobs under the proposed legislation.”
For example, ride-share drivers and real estate agents would lose clients and customers unwilling to be in a car equipped with an ignition interlock system, he said. Commercial drivers would be ineligible to work as a result of the court-ordered restriction, he added.
“There are going to be individual cases where such a harsh result is not fair or warranted,” said Stamm, of Goldstein & Stamm P.A. in Greenbelt.
But the father of Noah Leotta, the 24-year-old Montgomery County officer whose death sparked the 2016 law, said the namesake statute is “making a difference but not enough” in curbing drunk driving due to the PBJ loophole.
“Every time I hear probation before judgment I cringe,” said Rich Leotta, adding that he has attended court hearings at which judges chose not to order an ignition interlock as a condition of an accused drunk driver’s probation.
“That is disrespecting Noah,” Leotta said at a news conference Wednesday announcing the coming legislation. “That is disrespecting Noah’s law. Tell me how that protects the public? That is unconscionable.”
Noah Leotta was struck and killed in December 2015 by a 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 pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced in October 2016 to 10 years in prison by Montgomery County Circuit Judge Ann Harrington.
Rich Leotta, in voicing the need to remove judicial discretion in PBJs, said courts have historically been too lenient on drunk drivers, including in the case of Reluzco, who had earlier been cited for drunk driving.
“Leniency is what allowed him to ultimately kill my son,” Leotta said. “Let’s make Noah’s Law fully effective.”
The coming measure is also supported by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, whose national president, Helen Witty, called the bill “common-sense, life-saving legislation” at the news conference.