Infused with fresh enthusiasm, Howard County prosecutors want to put the heat on drunk drivers, with increased targeting of repeat offenders for longer sentences, perhaps in the state prison system, the supervising prosecutor for the District Court said.
"We're going to be asking for more enhanced penalties and more maximum time in incarceration," said Michael A. Weal, chief of the state's attorney's District Court division.
"We want to send a message: Don't drink and drive in Howard County."
The repeat offender initiative has been in high gear for about a month, Weal said.
The major weapon in the crackdown on repeat offenders is a 1979 state law that allows judges to enhance criminal penalties for multiple offenders, Weal said.
He added, however, that the law had seldom been used in Howard.
He credits the push against subsequent offenders to an aggressive new team of young prosecutors.
Since late last year, Weal has hired six prosecutors in the District Court office to replace those who have left for private practice or been promoted to the State Attorney's Circuit Court division. Three attorneys came aboard in January alone, he said.
Howard District Court judges have been supportive of the stepped-up campaign against repeat offenders, Weal said.
Judge R. Russell Sadler said the program also can be beneficial for drunken driving defendants. "It gives them some incentive not to repeat the offense and to get rehabilitation," he said.
The new assistant state attorneys are eager to try new tactics to reduce the heavy criminal caseload in District Court, Weal said.
Last year, the District Court handled about 7,000 cases, he said.
The most explosive growth has come in criminal traffic court, up 15 percent last year over 1986, Weal said.
These cases mainly include drunken driving and driving with suspended or revoked licenses, he said.
Under the repeat offender program, prosecutors and District Court clerks are working to better coordinate the criminal traffic docket, Weal said.
Using data supplied through a statewide computer system, Howard prosecutors are reviewing criminal records of drunken driving defendants several weeks before a scheduled hearing, Weal said. If the case warrants, a letter is mailed to a defendant notifying the person of the state's intent to press for enhanced penalties under the repeat offender law, he said.
At court hearings, Weal said, prosecutors will ask district judges for maximum penalties for repeat offenders. "They won't be making a lot of deals," Weal said. "If the facts call for it, we'll go for the maximum."
The repeat offender law can double the sentence of drunk drivers, who usually receive probation or suspended sentences, Weal said.
For example, a repeat offender accused of driving while intoxicated, a charge that normally carries a one-year jail term, could be sentenced to two years in prison, Weal said.
Sentences of less than one year can be served in the county detention center in Jessup, Weal said. But if a District Court judge imposes a longer sentence, "that's hard time" at the Maryland Department of Corrections, he said.