The Maryland Senate unanimously passed a tough drunken driving bill yesterday, stripping from judges the option of sentencing repeat offenders to community service and instead mandating five or 10 days of jail time.
The bill, a top priority for public safety advocates, faces an uphill battle in the House, with only days before adjournment. It goes to a House committee that has historically bottled up such legislation and that has been sitting on a similar bill since February.
Sen. Phillip C. Jimeno (D-Anne Arundel), who sponsored the Senate measure, is adamant that the measure closes a loophole and "puts teeth" in the current law. The House Judiciary Committee "doesn't let a lot of things through" on drunken driving, he said. "We have to send a strong message that, as a state, we're not going to tolerate it. If you repeatedly drive drunk, you are going to lose your license, and you are going to go to jail."
Jimeno's bill requires that people convicted of drunken driving twice within five years would serve a minimum of five days in jail. A third-time offender would serve a minimum of 10 days in jail.
The bill closes what Jimeno calls a loophole in last year's landmark repeat offender bill, which allowed for similar jail time for drunk drivers but gave judges the option of ordering community service -- 30 hours for the second offense and 60 hours for the third.
The current law includes as jail time home detention with electronic monitoring or confinement in an inpatient rehab or treatment center. Jimeno's bill calls strictly for time in jail.
Jimeno's bill would also require offenders to undergo a comprehensive alcohol abuse assessment and, if recommended, participate in an alcohol treatment program. Current law gives judges the option of ordering such an assessment.
Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's), a criminal defense lawyer who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, was noncommittal on the bill's fate but promised a hearing next week.
In documents Vallario plans to share with other committee members, his staff has found that over the past three years in the major jurisdictions of Maryland, only four people convicted of driving under the influence have been sentenced to community service.
"That tells me that not many people are getting community service," Vallario said. "The real reason community service was included was to give a judge flexibility if he felt a person physically couldn't withstand jail time. . . . That would make some better sense."
But Jimeno and others say Vallario's numbers don't really mean much, because the tougher repeat offender bill has been in effect only since October and no one really knows if the more lenient community service option has been overused, as is Jimeno's fear.
"The whole concern is that the penalties are there, but the judges never really impose them," he said. "That's why the legislature is stepping in."
Proponents of tough drunken-driving laws say this bill and this year are real tests for the General Assembly. In the past two years, Maryland passed strong drunken driving laws: changing the legal blood alcohol content to 0.08, banning open containers in cars and passing the repeat offender law.
But each of those measures was necessary for Maryland to receive federal highway funds.
"This will be a real test of whether we can pass drunk driving laws simply on their merits," said Kurt Erickson, head of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, who has lobbied lawmakers to pass Jimeno's bill.
Already, lawmakers have killed a number of other drunken driving bills, including tougher penalties for drivers with two to three times the legal blood alcohol levels.
Virginia and the District already have such laws on the books.
Lawmakers also killed efforts to increase penalties for drivers who refuse to take a breath test, to expand the ignition interlock program, to toughen driver's license suspensions for repeat drunk drivers and to limit a practice called "probation before judgment," whereby a DUI conviction is expunged after five years.
The widespread use of probation before judgment is, in large part, why Mothers Against Drunk Drivers has given Maryland a "D" rating for its drunken driving laws.
The only other drunken driving bill still pending would require that once a driver is stopped and arrested for a DUI, the motorist would be forbidden to drive for 12 hours.