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Local prosecutor pushes for tougher DUI laws and penalties

Annapolis, MD- Drunk driving is a continuous problem in the United States. According to MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) about one third of all drivers arrested or convicted of driving drunk are repeat offenders.

In Maryland, members of the State’s Attorneys’ Association believe the offenders continue to drive drunk because the laws aren’t tough enough. The state of Maryland is just one of three states and the District of Columbia where driving under the influence is not a felony, whether it’s the first conviction or the tenth.

In many states, the first or second offense may equal a misdemeanor charge, but subsequent charges will land a felony charge on the offender’s record.

In 2017, a bill was presented to both the Maryland Senate and House that would make driving under the influence (DUI) a felony after three or more prior DUI convictions—and would carry a maximum jail sentence of 10 years in prison.

That bill never made it to the floor for a vote.

It’s back in front of the House Judiciary Committee today, Feb.7. Testifying before the committee is St. Mary’s County Assistant State’s Attorney Jaymi Sterling. She is the person who brought the subject the light.

When Sterling was prosecuting a case in 2016, it was the defendant’s tenth DUI charge—he had nine prior DUI convictions. However, Sterling’s hands were tied when it came to fighting for jail time. “Three years is the maximum sentence you can receive whether it’s your third DUI conviction or your tenth.”

Sterling is a member of the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association’s Legislative Committee and the subcommittee on serious traffic offenses—she’s also the daughter of Gov. Larry Hogan [R].

“My dad will routinely ask me how things are going at work. I told him about that particular case and he was shocked. I told him Maryland is far behind the rest of the country when it comes to making DUI a felony,” Sterling said.

Despite the uphill battle, Sterling said she was shocked the bill wasn’t passed last year.

It seems some lawmakers were concerned about collateral consequences if they passed the bill. “Some of the legislators were concerned for the defendants and their families and felt a felony wasn’t warranted it wasn’t a violent offense and it wouldn’t be fair to the defendants’ families,” noted Sterling.

The new bill is now written for the fourth or subsequent offenses. However, because Maryland has probation before judgement (PBJ) on the first offense, as the bill is written, it would be an offender’s fifth or subsequent offense. “A majority of time offenders get a PBJ and it’s counted as a probation, not a conviction. So technically your second offense is counted as your first.” Sterling explained.

Sterling went on to say there’s a reason the bill is written this way, “We know there are several defense attorneys on the committees. In fact, the chair on both of the committees are defense attorneys.”

On average, two out of three people will be involved in a drunk driving accident in their lifetime. Sterling said it needs to stop. “I think this is something we absolutely need and the fact that we’re one of just a few states who doesn’t have this is outrageous.”

In Maryland last year, there were more than 7,100 DUI-related crashes, more than 4,000 resulted in injury, and 116 ended in fatalities. “These are astounding numbers and this should have been passed 40 years ago,” Sterling said.

She also explained the average drunk driver has driven under the influence 80 times before their first arrest, “I feel this needs to pass for public safety. These are people who are time and time again getting into a car and driving home.”

As Sterling prepares to present her argument for the bill, she once again has the support from Governor Hogan. “Our new Repeat Drunk Driving Offenders Act of 2017 will help ensure that moving forward we have more tools at our disposal to hold these offenders accountable for their crimes while also helping to protect future potential victims of repeat drunk drivers.”

“This is someone who has been caught, charged and convicted multiple times. I thought the first time it was going to get passed because it was a no-brainer. I can’t imagine one person who would be against this—it defies logic to me,” Sterling said.

You can read the SB296 here and the HB349 here.

Contact Joy Shrum at j.shrum@thebaynet.com

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