Days after a Maryland Transportation Authority Police officer was killed in a crash involving a driver with a suspended license, area lawmakers said they are studying ways to keep people whose driving privileges have been revoked or suspended from getting behind the wheel of a vehicle.
Cpl. Duke G. Aaron III, 29, was killed July 20. Authorities said Albert Gene Antonelli, 32, who was driving on a suspended license, smashed his pickup truck into the back of Aaron's cruiser, which was parked beside the westbound lanes of Route 50 near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
As the area mourned his passing, lawmakers questioned what more can be done to stop unauthorized driving.
"The question is, if you take someone's license away, what's to keep them from getting behind the wheel?" said Del. Joan Cadden (D-Anne Arundel).
The answer, said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno (D-Anne Arundel), a member of the judicial proceedings committee, is to incarcerate offenders or take away their vehicles.
But impounding a person's car can make life difficult if other family members rely on it to get to school or work, Jimeno acknowledged. So he said more offenders should get jail time. And he added that the legislature might consider stricter penalties for people caught driving with suspended or revoked licenses.
"Unfortunately, it takes a death to focus attention on something like this," said Jimeno, who knew Aaron personally. In the upcoming legislative session, which starts in January, he said, lawmakers "are going to take a look at this to see if we can't do more."
First-time offenders caught driving with a suspended license now face 60 days to a year in jail, said Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee. Repeat offenders face even more time behind bars.
But jail sentences are rarely imposed by Anne Arundel County judges, who usually issue fines in these cases, Weathersbee said. "If people, especially repeat offenders, started getting jail time for driving with a suspended license, that's a good message to send," he said.
Weathersbee's office is still waiting for the results of an investigation into the crash, and it has not yet decided whether to file charges against Antonelli. Andrew White, Antonelli's attorney, has said that his client did not know his license had been suspended, and that he never meant to hurt anybody.
But Del. David G. Boschert (R-Anne Arundel) said the case should be used to send a message to other illegal drivers.
"People who drive without a license could care less about the law," Boschert said. "You must put them away for a certain period of time. Until you start making examples of some of these violators, it will never stop. . . . This is serious. A 29-year-old man is dead."
Aaron's death has shaken the tight-knit Transportation Authority police department and the community of Pasadena, where he grew up and attended o Chesapeake High School. Aaron was buried Monday in a ceremony that drew hundreds of police officers from around the region.
Aaron won the Transportation Authority police department's "Officer of the Year" award three times. He was remembered as a dedicated husband and officer, who took pride in patrolling the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
"I've never seen an officer so revered by his family and friends," Transportation Authority Chief Gary W. McLhinney said at the funeral.
Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) called Aaron "one of our best, one of our finest."