A bill to expand the use of ignition locks for drunk drivers in Maryland was approved in the final hour of the annual legislative session Monday night, giving a measure of solace to the grieving parents of a slain Montgomery County police officer who spent months pushing the bill forward in their son’s memory.
Rich Leotta and Marcia Goldman watched anxiously from the House galley as the minutes ticked closer to midnight, hoping lawmakers would take a final vote on the measure named for their son, Noah Leotta, who was struck and killed by a drunk driver at a DUI checkpoint in Rockville.
“We needed to find something that would allow us to get through our grief,” Leotta said, describing the legislation as his son’s legacy. “We’re still grieving, but at least this helps a little bit. It didn’t just help save others’ lives. It helped save our lives too.”
But safe-driving advocates who were thrilled at the passage “Noah’s Law” were outraged by changes made to another piece of legislation that is also aimed at cracking down on illegal drinking.
That bill, called “Alex and Calvin’s Law” after two Thomas S. Wootton High School graduates killed last June, originally mandated jail time and stiffer fines for adults found to have provided alcohol to people who are underage.
But the final version of the bill would levy those fines only if the adults in question knew the underage drinker was going to drive and their subsequent driving resulted in serious injury or death. That version of the bill passed in the final hour of the legislative session Monday night, and will go to Gov. Larry Hogan for his signature.
“Unlike tonight’s passage of Noah’s Law, Alex & Calvin’s law was substantially weakened so as to have any enhanced penalties apply only in the deadliest or near deadliest of teen traffic crashes in Maryland,” said Kurt Erickson, president of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program.
Hogan (R) has expressed strong support for Noah’s Law, different versions of which had languished in the House Judiciary Committee for years.
This year, the young officer’s death galvanized law enforcement agencies across the state to lobby for the bill, along with the advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Leotta’s family.
In response to the outpouring from the community, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) told Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s) to make sure the bill got a vote in committee.
In recent days, however, the measure hit a final stumbling block: a proposal to link the legislation with a bill that would allow punitive damages in civil lawsuits involving drunk drivers. The punitive damages measure had stalled in committee earlier in the session, and key delegates balked at the idea of adding it to the ignition-law bill.
By Monday, lawmakers had dropped the idea of combining the two measures, and instead were close to agreeing on a series of amendments to the House version of the bill, which advocates said brought the measure closer to the version that had been passed by the Senate.
The House voted unanimously in favor of the amended bill at about 11:30 p.m., with Leotta’s relatives looking on. Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery) introduced the family members after the vote, and lawmakers gave them a standing ovation.
“You will always know Noah is still on the job every single time an ignition interlock stops a drunk driver,” Kramer told them.
The bill 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.
“It’s going to be a stronger bill,” Rich Leotta, the father of the slain officer, said after the amendments were added. “It’s really going to honor Noah. . . . What they did, however they got here, I’m happy for it.”
The bill that addresses penalties for providing alcohol to people who are underage is named for Calvin Li and Alex Murk, who were killed in the crash last June. The driver of their car, also a recent graduate, had been with them at an underage drinking party in Potomac.
He pleaded guilty Friday to two counts of vehicular manslaughter. The father of the teen who hosted the party pleaded guilty to two criminal citations for allowing underage drinking at his home and was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine, the maximum.
During a hearing of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee in February, law enforcement officials, advocates and family members of drunken driving victims pleaded with lawmakers to pass the legislation.
David Murk and Paul Li, the fathers of the dead teenagers, gave emotional testimony, with Li telling the committee his heart “was shattered in pieces” when he went to the morgue to see his son’s body.
The committee took the unusual step of voting on the bill before the testimony was finished. It passed unanimously, as members of Murk’s and Li’s families wept.
But lawmakers later added amendments that Erickson said “obliterated” the bill.
Earlier in the session, the General Assembly this session passed a bill that increases the maximum criminal penalties for repeat impaired drivers who have been convicted once of a drunken driving accident that involved serious injury or death.