Never before had Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, chairman of the Maryland Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee, stopped in the middle of a hearing to take a vote on a bill.
But after listening to emotional testimony from two fathers whose teenage sons were killed by an underage drunk driver, Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) accepted a motion to approve a bill that would stiffen the penalties for adults who provide alcohol to people younger than 21 — including a provision that would send such adults to jail.
The vote, taken in February, was unanimous. Some onlookers in the hearing room cried. Others applauded.
The bill named for slain 18-year-olds Alex Murk and Calvin Li seemed destined that evening to sail through the legislature. But it was dramatically weakened just days before the General Assembly adjourned this month.
Under an amendment pushed by Zirkin and approved by the Judicial Proceedings Committee, the bill would impose jail time and higher fines only if the adult in question “knew or should have known” an underage drinker would drive, and if that drunk driver causes “serious injury or death to the individual or another.”
Zirkin and other lawmakers said they realized after their committee vote that the bill could have meant jail time for college students who are 21 or older and provide beer to friends who are underage.
But others say the amended legislation, which awaits approval by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), no longer does what it was originally intended to do: discourage parents from hosting parties for teenagers where alcohol is provided.
“The amendment took a very strong, preventative-minded bill and turned it into a weak, punitive bill,” said Montgomery County Police Capt. Tom Didone, head of the department’s traffic division and an expert in teen-drinking abuses. “The bill severely upends our ability to leverage parents to do the right thing.”
David Murk and Paul Li began their quest for tougher penalties after learning that Kenneth Saltzman, whose house was the site of the party their sons attended, had been issued two criminal citations for allowing underage drinking at his home.
Saltzman, who was aware of the drinking, was fined $2,500 for each citation, the maximum allowed under the law. The teenage driver in the crash recently pleaded guilty to two counts of vehicular manslaughter.
Under the original version of “Alex and Calvin’s Bill,” a person who provided alcohol to someone younger than 21 could have received a jail term of up to one year and/or a fine of up to $5,000 for first offense. They could have received two years of incarceration and/or a $7,500 fine for a second or subsequent offense.
Twenty-six other states include the possibility of jail time for adults convicted of providing alcohol to people younger than 21 at parties.
Didone told the legislative panels this year that Montgomery County police had cracked down on 30 parties involving underage drinkers from June, when Murk and Li died, until February. A third of those parties were hosted by adults. He asked lawmakers to give the police the tool they needed to end the illegal activity.
Kurt Erickson, president of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, said it is easy to blame a “faceless, impersonal entity” for providing alcohol to those who are underage. But a 2013 survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that parents, guardians, or other adult family members were the second leading source of alcohol for underage drinkers.
Alex and Calvin’s bill first ran into trouble in the House Judiciary Committee, where Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery) raised concerns that bill could be applied to people other than parents who host underage drinking parties.
Moon’s questions opened a discussion about whether a 21-year-old college student who gave a beer to a 20-year-old would be subject to going to jail.
Moon said he talked to Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo (D-Montgomery), the House bill’s sponsor, and to Montgomery County police. The House committee settled on an amendment to the bill that specified that the jail time and $5,000 fine would apply only to adults who host parties where alcohol is provided.
“We were getting push back on the ‘jail college kids’ problem,” Moon said. “So we put jail on parents hosting house parties.”
When the amended bill went back to the Senate, Zirkin had new concerns. Even with the amendment, he said, he thought the bill could be applied far more broadly than intended — to college students, rather than to parents of teens.
“We wanted to make sure we passed a bill that dealt with the issue that was before us,” Zirkin said. “We wanted to be more specific on who we were trying to put a jail sentence on. . . . I don’t want to see police officers showing up with [patrol wagons] at Morgan State University, Coppin State or the University of Maryland. I don’t think anyone wants to see that. ”
Fraser-Hidalgo said that given the link between drinking and sexual assaults on college campuses, he did not understand “why we’re so worried about defending 21- and 22-year-olds.”
He called the changes to the bill “disheartening for everyone.”
The House of Delegates agreed to accept the Senate committee’s amendments on April 11, the final day of session. Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery), who sponsored the legislation in the Senate, said time was running out, and lawmakers thought they had little choice.
“It was either going to be that language or no bill,” Feldman said. “We felt it was important to get a bill passed. . . . We were running up against midnight.”
Hogan was not aware of the changes made to the legislation. He said the concept of Alex and Calvin’s bill was “good,” but he has not seen the bill’s final wording.
Just after the final votes on the bill took place, lawmakers gave full passage to “Noah’s Law,” another high-profile measure that addresses drunken driving by expanding the use of ignition locks. That bill is named for a Montgomery County police officer who was killed by a drunk driver several months after the deaths of Alex Murk and Calvin Li.
Fraser-Hidalgo noted that lawmakers fought for seven years to pass the ignition-lock bill.
He said he will continue his fight against underage drinking next year, and will sponsor new legislation to improve Alex and Calvin’s law.
To pass that bill, he will have to persuade the same lawmakers in the House Judiciary and Senate Judicial Proceedings committees who amended the legislation this year.