Victims’ families, AAA push for stronger vehicular homicide law in Maryland

Adiva Sotzsky made what has turned into an annual pilgrimage to Annapolis on Tuesday to talk about the truck driver who struck and killed her husband on the American Legion Bridge in 2004 and got off with a $500 fine.

She thinks he should have gone to jail. She wants Maryland law changed so it’s easier to put behind bars those responsible for vehicular-related deaths.

State Sen. Brian Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, doubts that prison is the proper place for most drivers who make fatal mistakes.

“If it’s not intentional and it’s not grossly negligent, do we really want to send somebody to jail?” Frosh said.

With less than two weeks left in Maryland’s annual legislative session, Sotzky’s desire for change may hinge on whether Frosh can be convinced it is necessary.

Already approved by the House, a bill that would change the law now is in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which Frosh chairs. He says the rush of Senate business has kept him from reading it. He plans to hold a hearing next week but isn’t sure whether he will ask the committee to vote on it.

“It depends on what the bill says,” Frosh said, “and whether it can be fixed and whether they can thread the needle.”

To thread the needle to Frosh’s satisfaction, the bill’s advocates need to define “precisely what their target is.”

The bill’s author, House Del. Luiz Simmons (D), a criminal defense lawyer from Montgomery County, thinks they have.

Under current law, drivers in fatal accidents could face jail time if they’re grossly negligent. Simmons and some state prosecutors contend that gross negligence is an impossibly high standard to meet. They want the law’s wording changed to allow up to three years in jail for someone guilty of a “substantial deviation from the standard of care.”

“For someone to demonstrate ‘substantial negligence’ is higher than ordinary negligence but lower than gross negligence,” Simmons said. “At one point I estimated that there were 30 to 40 [vehicular] homicides that prosecutors wanted to prosecute but couldn’t under today’s high standard.”

To Simmons, and the American Automobile Association, which also is pushing for the change, that translates into drivers such as those who cause fatalities while going twice the speed limit down country roads and whipping around slower cars on blind curves.

To Frosh, that new standard could be applied to the mother who fatally hits a bicyclist when she takes a glance at a crying child in the back seat of her minivan.

“When moments of inattention can kill somebody, that’s a terrible thing,” Frosh said. “You can lose your house, your job, you can lose everything you own in a civil suit, but do we want to send that mother to jail?”

Simmons says a more relaxed standard would allow state prosecutors to decide whether to seek jail terms for drivers in fatal accidents. Frosh worries that if that mother’s baby crying in the back seat dies in the ensuing accident, the mother might face jail.

“State’s attorneys have done some of the most ridiculous things imaginable,” Frosh said, “and it’s not beyond the pale that they would prosecute somebody for killing their own family member.”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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