Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed measures on Thursday that will change how drunk drivers are punished and how police are disciplined as well as another that dramatically shifts how the criminal justice system deals with nonviolent drug offenders.
The bills were among 144 pieces of legislation Hogan (R) signed in his final bill-signing session of 2016, leaving about 100 other measures still awaiting action. Hogan has until the end of next week to decide whether to veto the remaining bills or let them take effect without his signature.
Thursday’s ceremony drew hundreds of advocates and onlookers, including dozens of police officers and officials. Many had pressed for lawmakers to approve Noah’s Law, which will expand the use of interlock ignition devices for drunk drivers. The bill was named for Noah Leotta, a Montgomery County police officer who was killed by a drunk driver while on DUI patrol.
“It’s a special day, a celebration of life, of Noah’s life, and a celebration of saving lives,” said Rich Leotta, the slain officer’s father, said after the ceremony, which took place a day after the man charged in the death pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter.
“This was all about saving lives. Noah had a short life, but he left a big legacy.”
The ceremony included lawmakers and advocates who for years have fought for the state to strengthen the state’s drunken-driving laws and those who have pushed for police and criminal justice reforms.
Advocates who have pressed for improvements in police accountability said the successful passage of the reform bill this year was due to the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore from injuries suffered while in police custody and the protests and riots that followed in the city last spring.
Larry Stafford, who leads the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability and is the executive director of Progressive Maryland, said advocates have worked for years to change how officers are hired, trained and disciplined, without much success.
After the unrest in Baltimore, Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) set up a legislative work group to recommend ways to improve relations between the police and the community.
“A lot of credit goes to the activists and organizers in Baltimore City who stood up after what happened with Freddie Gray and pushed for changes,” Stafford said. “That made this very possible.”
Del. Benjamin Kramer (D-Montgomery), who sponsored a bill to expand the use of interlock ignitions for the past seven years, said “there was no way we could not get this bill passed” this year after the media attention and the efforts of Leotta’s parents, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the law-enforcement community.
“It really is such a common-sense bill that will unequivocally save lives,” Kramer said.
Noah’s Law lowers the blood alcohol level at which ignition locks are required from 0.15 to 0.08. It also requires ignition interlocks for anyone who has failed a breath alcohol test, not just those who have been convicted of driving under the influence.
Hogan also signed the Justice Reinvestment Act, which will shift the criminal justice system’s focus from prison to treatment for nonviolent drug offenders. Under the bill, mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders will be eliminated, penalties for several violent crimes will be increased and some nonviolent criminals will be able to leave prison earlier.
The legislation’s aim is to reduce the state’s prison population and save the state money — an estimated $80 million over the next 10 years. Much of that money is supposed to be reinvested in drug treatment and prisoner rehabilitation programs.
Hogan also signed a pay-equity bill that bans employers from providing lower wages or less-favorable job opportunities based on sex or gender identity and bars any workplace rules against discussing pay with colleagues.
Among the bills still awaiting action from Hogan are measures that would increase funding to overcrowded school districts; make college more affordable; require the state to match a federal grant for pre-kindergarten funding; and create a commission to study equity in school funding.
Busch said it would be a “major concern” if Hogan vetoed the education-related bills, given the importance Marylanders place on top-quality schools. He noted that some of the bills require the state to spend additional money, an obligation Hogan has been reluctant to embrace in the past.
Sen. Nancy King (D-Montgomery County), who sponsored the bill to review the state’s school-funding formulas, said “we’re not sure why” Hogan wouldn’t want to sign that legislation. “It’s a real important bill.”
Hogan has also not signed a bill, pushed by Attorney General Brian Frosh (D), that deals with the structured-settlement industry. Under the measure, a judge would determine whether a structured-settlement transfer was in the best interest of the recipient, and the attorney general would have the authority to regulate the transfers.
Hogan spokesman Matt Clark said that “every single [bill] is being analyzed on its own merit” and that the remaining bills are still being reviewed.