Maryland State Del. Sheila K. Hixson pleaded guilty yesterday to driving while under the influence of alcohol and drugs in Bethesda last March. A Montgomery County Circuit judge ordered the 50-year-old Democrat from Silver Spring to pay a $250 fine and take a six-week alcohol education course from the county health department.
"I'm just embarrassed for my family and friends, and I'm sorry the situation happened," Hixson told Circuit Judge David L. Cahoon before sentencing. Hixson told Cahoon the incident showed "lack of judgment on my part."
Hixson, a member of the state legislature since 1976, was stopped by county police last March 11, driving home at 2:35 a.m. after dinner at the Palm Restaurant on 19th Street NW and after-dinner drinks in Georgetown. Police said they saw her car weaving several times across two lanes of East-West Highway in Bethesda.
Hixson was arrested two weeks before Ohio congressman Louis Stokes was arrested on drunk driving charges, also by Montgomery police. Stokes fought the charges against him but was found guilty last week of driving under the influence and running a red light. He has yet to be sentenced.
Like Stokes, Hixson was arrested after failing several roadside sobriety tests. Prosecutor Margaret Grove said the delegate was unable to recite the alphabet despite two efforts, slurred her letters and had difficulty walking. The delegate's eyes were bloodshot, Grove said, and police noticed a "very strong odor of alcohol." Hixson refused to take a chemical sobriety test on her lawyer's advice.
Hixson's attorney, John M. Quinn, told Cahoon that his client had not eaten properly during the day at the statehouse in Annapolis prior to her arrest. According to a sentencing memorandum filed by Quinn, Hixson had a "typical legislative session diet" the day before her arrest, consisting of juice, coffee and toast for breakfast, and a soft drink, corn chips and a candy bar for lunch.
After voting at 8 p.m., Hixson had dinner and drinks with a brother, visiting from her native Michigan, and an old hometown friend, Quinn said.
The memorandum states that Hixson, her brother and friends went to dinner at the Palm at about 10 p.m., where Hixson had "one to two scotch-and-water cocktails" and a full meal with salad and garlic bread. The party then went to Georgetown "to do some reminiscing and celebrating," during which Hixson had "one to two additional scotch and waters as well as Irish Mist," an after-dinner drink.
Hixson was tired, according to the memorandum, and was taking two kinds of tablets to treat a virus, as well as diet pills. The memorandum called it "apparent that the consumption of alcohol in combination with cold medication did affect the driving of Ms. Hixson as well as her subsequent performance on the field sobriety tests."
Quinn told Cahoon that Hixson had been driving for 34 years without a moving violation. He said Hixson was screened for alcohol problems by the county health department in July and was found not to be a problem drinker.
Under the plea arrangement worked out with prosecutors, the original charge of driving while intoxicated--which carries a maximum $1,000 fine and one year prison term--was amended to the lesser charge of driving while under the influence of alcohol and drugs--which carries a maximum fine of $500 and up to 60 days in jail.
The $250 fine and order to attend alcohol education classes that Hixson received is a common sentence for first offenders in driving-under-the-influence cases in Montgomery County. The six-week alcohol education class she must attend is part of a 26-week county-run therapy program. It currently has about 800 participants, almost all of them sent there by the courts, according to director Herbert Winstead. Under a provision of Maryland law commonly invoked for first offenders, Hixson was placed on "unsupervised probation" for one year, thus avoiding a criminal record and loss of her license.