Witnesses testify at Md. hearings for breathalyzer devices

Del. Tanya Thornton Shewell (R-Carroll) speaks with Chuck Hurley of MADD and Jacqueline S. Gillan.
Del. Tanya Thornton Shewell (R-Carroll) speaks with Chuck Hurley of MADD and Jacqueline S. Gillan. (Marvin Joseph/the Washington Post)
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By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 8, 2010

As the witness softly wept about her lost loved one, most members of the Maryland House Judiciary Committee were absorbed in the laptop computers open on their desks. Three of them were on Facebook.

It did not matter much, because the man who will decide whether to stiffen Maryland's drunken-driving laws gave her his complete attention.

Joseph F. Vallario, a short, balding man with a pencil mustache, peered across the room with eyebrows arched and brow furrowed, the fingers of his right hand twisting the gold pinkie ring on his left. After 35 years in the House of Delegates, the longtime judiciary chairman is a deft practitioner of the push and pull of participatory democracy, and he was going to prove it.

His committee is made up of 15 people with law degrees plus an engineer, a farmer, a businessman, a respiratory therapist, a small-business owner and a chauffeur. Lobbyists on both sides of the drunken-driving debate see them as an amiable and malleable lot, with a majority generally willing to be persuaded to the chairman's point of view.

So, as Vallario looked out as more people tried to squeeze through the door into a packed gallery, he knew that the drama Wednesday would be tailored to put pressure on him.

It wasn't by chance that the first five citizen witnesses made a point of saying they lived in his Prince George's County district. They and more than two dozen others who followed them to the microphone want Maryland to require that first-time drunken drivers use a breathalyzer ignition device for at least six months.

That's at the top of the national agenda this year for Mothers Against Drunk Driving(MADD)believes , could save thousands of lives each year. In Virginia, the Senate Courts Committee is expected to act on a mandatory interlock bill Monday.

The mandate doesn't make sense to the American Beverage Institute, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender or the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys' Association, whose lobbyists testified against it at the hearing Wednesday. They worry that it will be a harsh punishment for first-time offenders who are "one sip over the line."

With multiple lobbyists for each side in place, the witnesses trooped before Vallario, beginning with the mothers, sisters and brothers of people killed by drunken drivers, a traditional MADD strategy that in three decades has transformed the national debate over drinking behind the wheel.

Several wept. One, Judy Kressig, caused every committee member to look up from the laptop when she wobbled to the witness table on her cane.

"My life is bad, guys. You have no idea," she said, her voice slurred by the brain damage she suffered after slamming into a fence post while driving in a drunken stupor. She had two prior convictions for drunken driving. "If the interlock system had been in place, it wouldn't have happened."

In all, there were 17 bills to be heard that day, and three involved ignition interlocks.

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