A long-sought bill to require more drunk drivers in Maryland to have Breathalyzers installed on the dashboards of their cars cleared a major hurdle on Friday when it received preliminary approval in the House of Delegates.
Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery), the bill sponsor, said he was elated that the bill was moving forward after seven years of failed attempts.
“This has been so long in the making,” Kramer said. “I really think we have made a significant step.”
The bill, which received greater attention this year from the legislature after the highly-publicized death of Noah Leotta, a Montgomery County police officer who was killed by a drunk driver Dec. 3 while on DUI patrol, is expected to receive a final vote in the House next week. It will then be sent to the Senate for consideration.
The bill is expected to considered favorably in the Senate, where it has advanced in the past.
Advocates — led by Noah Leotta’s parents, Rich Leotta and Marcia Goldman -- mounted a strong effort to get the legislation passed this year. Rich Leotta, joined by Montgomery County police officials, testified before legislative committees over the past week imploring lawmakers to toughen drunk driving laws by lowering the threshold for those who are required to get Breathalyzers installed in their cars. If the device detects that a driver has been drinking when he or she blows into a tube, the ignition locks and the car will not start.
Under the bill, dubbed “Noah’s Law,” motorists convicted of driving at or above the state’s legal blood alcohol limit of 0.08 percent would be required to breathe into a tube before they can try to start their vehicles. Under current law, ignition interlocks are placed on the cars of people convicted of driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.15 percent or higher.
If the bill is approved, Maryland would join about two dozen other states that mandate Breathalyzers, also known as ignition interlocks, for those convicted of driving at or above the legal blood-alcohol limit of 0.08 percent.
Supporters of the measure raised concerns late last week about changes the House Judiciary Committee made to the bill before advancing it to the House floor. In past years, the bill has stalled in the committee. Advocates’ main concern was that the committee removed a provision that required ignition interlocks for suspected drunk drivers who refuse to take the alcohol breath test.
Kramer said earlier this week that he planned to take his battle to strengthen the bill to the House floor. Instead, late Thursday, the committee voted on amendments that basically brought the bill back to its original form.
Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who has kept the measure from advancing for the last seven years, introduced the amendments on the House floor.
Under one amendment, drivers who refuse to take an alcohol breath test would receive a 270-day suspension of their license or go on the interlock for one year. Under current law, a driver would receive a 120-day license suspension.
If suspected drunk drivers decide to go to court and they are convicted, they would have to get a Breathalyzer.
“It’s a very good compromise,” Kramer said. “It’s a big difference from where we were last week.”
Also, on Friday, the House advanced a bill that would ban firearm possession on the campuses of public colleges and universities, with exceptions for police officers and security personnel. The bill is sponsored by Del. Ben Barnes (D-Prince George’s) and is part of a package of bills designed to make the state’s gun laws stronger. The bill is expected to receive final approval next week.
In the Senate, lawmakers voted 33-10 to merge the University of Maryland in College Park with the University of Maryland in Baltimore, requiring the University of Maryland headquarters to move to Baltimore. The two institutions will continue to have two separate presidents.