By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2009
When Mary Gray's 20-year-old son was killed after his car was hit by a speeding off-duty Prince George's County police officer who later acknowledged drinking the night before the early-morning accident, she thought the officer deserved to go to jail.
Instead, after a year-long investigation, Officer Mario Chavez was issued a traffic ticket for the December 2007 accident in which Brian Gray died. County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey said there was not enough evidence to charge Chavez with vehicular manslaughter, which in Maryland requires proving that a driver acted with "gross negligence," one of the highest such standards in the nation.
Yesterday, Gray and Ivey went to Annapolis to testify in support of a bill that would make it easier to prosecute reckless drivers by creating a new middle ground between traffic citations and felony vehicular manslaughter.
Under the proposal, drivers could be charged with a misdemeanor punishable by up to three years in jail in cases in which they display negligence that results in "substantial risk" to safety and causes a fatality.
"Something has to be done," Gray said, who said she had never attended a legislative hearing until compelled by her son's death. "I need to know I have made a difference."
This is the fifth consecutive year that Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery) has sponsored a measure on the issue, arguing Maryland law allows jail time for littering but creates an unreasonably high standard for proving vehicular homicide.
"It's a cosmic absurdity," he said.
He said 30 other states have implemented laws that allow charges in reckless driving cases that result in deaths, even if the drivers have not shown "gross negligence."
Gray joined a series of family members of those killed in car accidents who have testified in support of similar measures in recent years. Rockville resident Adiva Sotzsky has gone to Annapolis each year since 2005 to talk about her husband, Harry, who died while riding a motorcycle on the American Legion Bridge. She said prosecutors told her that they believed they could not meet the high standard for charging the trucker who hit him with felony vehicular manslaughter. Instead, she said, the trucker received a $500 traffic citation.
"It's like having a knife shoved in your gut," she said in an interview yesterday.
The bill has died each of the past four years when Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's), the House Judiciary Committee chairman, has failed to call for a vote on the issue, effectively blocking its passage. In the Maryland legislature, committee chairmen have wide latitude in deciding whether to put proposed legislation to votes.
Simmons said he hopes public attention on cases in which drivers found at fault in fatalities received punishments no worse than traffic citations might spur Vallario to move the issue forward this year.
Vallario said he would consult members of his committee and had not decided whether to hold a vote on the bill before the legislative session concludes in April.
He said he was concerned by complaints from the state's public defenders' association that suggested the legal standard in the bill might be vague. He noted that the public defenders have also suggested the bill's language might be so close to existing law that it would result in some drivers who might now be charged with a felony instead getting a lesser punishment.
"It's pretty hard to come up with a standard that pleases everyone," he said.