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Maryland delegate says he regrets drunk-driving bill's failure

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 20, 2010; B05

A week after he allowed the bill to die, the chairman of Maryland's House Judiciary Committee said he regrets the failure to reach a compromise on legislation intended to keep drunk drivers off the road.

The bill that died with the close of the annual legislative session last week in Annapolis would have required first-time drunk drivers to use an ignition interlock breathalyzer. Approved overwhelmingly in the state Senate, it hit a roadblock when it reached the House committee chaired by Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's).

"After at least 10 meetings with the sponsor and advocates . . . I regret we have been unable to reach an accord," Vallario said in a memo to Judiciary Committee members.

Vallario, who as committee chairman since 1993 is one of the most powerful members of the legislature, opted not to permit a committee vote after a number of members balked at his compromise proposal.

Proponents of the bill and advocacy groups, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, initially insisted that all drivers stopped with a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit of 0.08 be required to use the device, which prevents anyone who is legally drunk from starting a vehicle.

Informed that Vallario would not entertain the bill unless it excluded more than half of first-time drunk drivers, the Senate amended its interlock bill to exempt anyone who received probation before judgment.

An estimated 56 percent of first-time offenders in Maryland admit their guilt and receive probation before judgment, avoiding a conviction. But when that version reached Vallario's desk, he argued for another concession.

Vallario insisted that drivers have a blood-alcohol level of 0.15, just short of twice the legal limit, before being required to use an interlock. He distributed a chart to committee members showing that 27 other states use 0.15 as the threshold for mandating interlocks.

In at least two closed-door sessions that participants described as contentious, some committee members objected to that proposal.

"We have offered to lower the threshold . . . to 0.12," Vallario said in his memo. "I am disappointed that an agreement was not reached. The advocates have indicated they would rather have no legislation passed than the compromise we have proposed."

Caroline Cash, executive director of MADD in Maryland, said that her group would have opposed a 0.12 threshold but that Vallario didn't invite them into the discussion.

"It was very disingenuous to suggest we wouldn't compromise," she said. "The reality is that we were the only ones who made any compromises. He's the one who wouldn't compromise."

MADD's national executive director, Chuck Hurley, said he will use Vallario's effective opposition to the bill to argue for federal sanctions against states that don't mandate interlock use at the 0.08 level.

"We absolutely believe there were votes [in the Judiciary Committee] for the Senate-passed bill," Hurley said. "The very fact that there wasn't a vote tells you that the only way he could kill it was by putting it in a drawer."

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