Saturday, February 27, 2010

Once is Enough

I never realized how dependent the liquor industry was upon those who drink and drive until I read last Friday’s Baltimore Sun article on ignition interlock devices.

Executives from the alcohol lobby and distributors rose to the defense of drunk drivers at a Maryland Senate hearing. One didn’t want to punish those who were “one sip of wine over the limit” the same as those who were “hard core alcoholics,” as though the difference matters. Too drunk to drive is too drunk to drive.

Another feared the crippling of “our judicial process” if judges were required to order the installation of the devices for those who drive drunk. Who knew the liquor industry cared so much about judicial discretion?

One would think that alcohol distributors would support measures to reduce drunk driving and put their industry in a positive light. Or at least stay out of the discussion. Especially when the Senate bill they testified about has nothing to do with judges. And it doesn’t “punish” anybody.

Ignition interlock devices are designed to keep drivers from driving drunk by preventing them from starting their car if they have a certain level of alcohol in their system. The proposed legislation would require the Motor Vehicle Administration--not judges--to mandate the devices for those who have been caught driving while drunk or impaired.

(For those who want more information, a pamphlet published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration describes the devices and their benefits, including a Maryland study that showed they reduced recidivism by nearly 65%.)

The devices are not a panacea. Contrary to the lofty title of the Senate bill—the “Drunk Driving Elimination Act”--it won’t stop those who have never been caught before. And determined drivers will be able to get around the device. But an ignition interlock program should deter those who carelessly drive drunk but are not determined to do so. As for the incorrigible drunk drivers, like the one who allegedly killed Hopkins student Miriam Frankl last fall, they will still need a judge to put them away.

But their evasion of ignition interlock devices should mark them as driving time bombs sooner rather than later.

Speaking of judges, House Judiciary Chairman (and defense attorney) Joe Vallario is also “troubled by the provision that that would tell judges to require the device as a condition of probation before judgment,” in the words of the Sun. Either the Sun or Vallario has gotten it wrong.

Neither the Senate nor the House versions of the bill require judges to mandate the devices. There is one House bill, with just one sponsor, that would force judges to order interlock devices. But it exempts first-time offenders, the very ones that get probation before judgment.

So it can’t be the intrusion into judicial discretion that bothers Vallario, though the judges could use a kick in their judicial discretion when it comes to drunk driving. My guess is that he doesn’t want MVA to require offenders who get probation before judgment to use the devices.

Probation before judgment—or PBJ, as it is known in the criminal justice system—wipes a conviction off a person’s record as long as he or she satisfactorily completes probation. When it comes to driving offenses, it also keeps any points off the driving record, leaving a driver’s insurance rates and driving privileges intact. It’s a pretty hefty benefit, and nearly automatic for first-time drunk drivers.

But these drivers are the very ones who should have to use an ignition interlock device. The purpose of the device is prevention, not punishment. The goal is to prevent a second offense, not by punishing, but by making sure a person can’t start their car with too much alcohol in their system. Why should we wait for a second offense before requiring the device? Why should we wait until it is too late for some victim?

There are 29 bills catalogued under “Drunk and Drugged Driving” pending before the House and Senate combined. On the ignition interlock device issue alone, 29 senators (or 60%) and another 28 delegates (or 20%) have sponsored the bill. Both “liberal” and “conservative” legislators support it.

Between the number of bills and the number of sponsors, it’s obvious how important the problem of drunk driving is to legislators and the public. So Joe Vallario needs to stop treating the House Judiciary Committee as his own personal veto tool and let the legislation come to a vote.

As a defense attorney he ought to welcome non-judicial, non-punitive alternatives to prison like ignition interlock devices. And as a delegate acting in the public interest he should enable votes on measures that could prevent innocent deaths, not enable drunk driving.

People who drive drunk today do it in the fact of enormous public education and awareness. Once is enough to require ignition interlock devices.

Related prior articles:
Too Late, Again
The American Right to Drive…No Matter What

1 comment:

  1. I had a sister who was killed while drinking and driving when she was 23. she would now be 54. the interlock would not have prevented her from driving a car.when some one is drinking they often make the wrong decisions regardless of a interlock.the problem is an addiction and a interlock is not going to give them the help they need. futher more stop trying to control the judges!