Gov. Harry Hughes' package of drunk-driving bills appeared headed for defeat today after a House of Delegates committee killed 20 drunk-driving bills, including three from the Hughes package, and made it clear it is no mood for radical changes in Maryland's drunk-driving laws this year.
At the request of the governor's staff, Judiciary Committee chairman Joseph E. Owens(D-Montgomery) agreed to delay voting on six of the nine Hughes-backed bills before the committee in order to give administration lobbyists more time to make a last ditch effort to save some of the measures. But the committee killed a series of bills which ranged in scope from changing homicide by motor vehicle while intoxicated from a misdemeanor to a felony to a bill which would have made it illegal to drive for six hours after having a drink.
"That one is the solution," joked Owens. "If we pass that, nobody will be on the road--ever."
The one significant bill the committee did pass increases the penalties for homicide by motor vehicle while intoxicated. Under the new law, a defendant can receive up to three years in prison and a $2,000 fine, increases from two years and $1,000. The committee also passed three bills which closed loopholes in legislation previously passed and is expected to pass one or two relatively minor bills from the Hughes package but none of the major ones.
"I think that's what we're going to end up doing, closing loopholes so the laws we've passed the last few years can be properly enforced," Owens said. "I don't think there's anyone in the mood here to make any more major changes right now."
Most notably, Owens and committee members are apparently opposed to a Hughes bill which would allow for the seizure and forfeiture of a person's car if he is stopped for drunk driving while already holding a license suspended or revoked because of a previous alcohol-related offense.
That bill has been passed for the last two years by the Senate, including this week by a 32-14 vote although many senators admitted they voted for the bill for publicity purposes in the expectation that Owens' committee would kill it. Committee members said today they expect to do just that.
"It will pass," one committee member said, "over the chairman's dead body."
Owens laughed at that remark, saying dryly, "I don't expect that one will be around too long."
One bill killed by the committee today that had been pushed by Hughes would have made a breathalyzer test showing a .13 percent degree of alcohol in a person's body conclusive evidence of drunk driving, with no other evidence needed to convict. The committee voted 14-6 against the bill, but only after considerable discussion.
"I think this would send a message to people," said Del. Pauline H. Menes (D-Prince George's).
But the argument was shot down by the committee members who are lawyers. They said that breathalyzer tests have been proven imperfect and added that the conviction rate on drunk driving is 92 percent in Maryland right now.
The committee also killed a Hughes-initiated bill that would have provided for mandatory prison sentences for second-offense drunk drivers and another bill which would have allowed for pretrial suspension of driver's licenses, based either on a blood or breathalyzer test or on a person's refusal to take a test.
One other bill killed by the committee would have required that a person convicted of drunk driving contribute 60 hours of community service.