By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 8, 2010; B01
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.
One would require first-time offenders to use an interlock for a year. The second would mandate use of an interlock for six months. The third would create an interlock program for first-timers and give the judge discretion for not requiring its use.
The third bill, sponsored by committee member Del. Luiz Simmons (D-Montgomery), is favored by the restaurant and liquor interests who think defense lawyers should have room to convince a judge that interlocks are inappropriate for their clients.
Chuck Hurley, executive director of MADD, calls it "the drunk driver's bill of rights."
Kurt Erickson, president of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, called it "the 800-pound gorilla in the room."
Vallario began the afternoon by hearing testimony on a flurry of unrelated bills before moving to the interlock issue, which accounted for the presence of more than half of the waiting witnesses.
He said testimony would be heard simultaneously on both the first and second bills but made no mention of the third -- the Simmons bill.
Most of the three dozen witnesses who came on before the restaurant and liquor industry dissenters said they favored both bills. Only Hurley and two others mentioned the third bill, all of them denouncing it. Then, Sarah Longwell of the American Beverage Institute said her group supported it as "the lesser of three evils."
Lobbyists for the big insurance companies voiced their support for the six-month requirement, as did a researcher who presented statistics that suggested the effectiveness of interlocks. Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) spoke in its favor, as did its main sponsor, Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery), who estimated that interlocks could save 55 Maryland lives each year.
Most of the committee members divided their time between the witnesses and their laptops. One posted a Facebook message to lament the closing of a Baltimore high school.
Simmons, however, was attentive throughout and thoughtful in his cross examination.
He said he'd spent "a lot of time hanging around District Court" during his career as a lawyer, witnessed plenty of action in DUI cases but couldn't recall a prosecutor ever asking a judge to require an interlock.
"State's attorneys have a weapon they have not used," Simmons said at one point, and at another: "A lot of numbers we get are plucked out of nowhere."
Vallario turned at the entrance to make eye contact with Bruce Bereano, a legendary Annapolis lobbyist who bounced back from a 1994 federal mail-fraud conviction for overbilling his clients.
Vallario made a palms-up shrug, and Bereano pointed to the witness chair, which he soon occupied to make the case for the licensed beverage distributors and to object to "cookie-cutter justice."
With thanks given to all who had come for the interlock bills, Vallario moved on to hear testimony on other measures.
The sorority sisters from Johns Hopkins University, who all wore purple in honor of a friend who was run down by a drunk, rose and left. So did the woman from Prince George's whose granddaughter died in a head-on crash and her neighbor, who lost a son to an 87-mph drunk.
Simmons stepped briefly into the hallway to chat with Bereano.
Hurley, Erickson and few others remained.
There were 36 empty seats in the gallery at 6:46 p.m. -- almost six hours into the hearing -- when Vallario called the last bill for the day -- Simmons's interlock bill.
"I introduced this to give the committee an alternative," Simmons said, "not because I disagree there is a problem."
Hurley took the chair to respond: "We see your bill as a blocking bill to the Kramer bill, which we strongly support. Your bill would continue the practice of go-to-court, make a deal."
Del. Kevin Kelly (D-Allegany), who is a lawyer, took issue with that, posing a hypothetical situation in which he gets pulled over after having four beers to celebrate a Super Bowl victory.
"Why do you want to break my kneecaps?" Kelly asked. "I just kind of feel we're going crazy on this. Do you think anybody in here supports real drunk driving? Is this headed to zero tolerance?"
And then it was over. In Maryland, committees don't vote at hearings. They take some time to weigh testimony before making a decision.
The next day, Vallario, who is past president of the Prince George's County Criminal Trial Lawyers Association, paused to field an interlock question on his way into the office of House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).
The committee vote, he said, might come next week. Which bill did he prefer?
"Oh, well, we'll get one," he said. "It won't look anything like what they had, I mean, you know, we got a lot of work to do on it, but we'll come up with something."