Md. panel votes to stiffen penalties for underage drinking parties

Original Source | By: Ovetta Wiggins, The Washington Post

Urged on by two grieving fathers, a Maryland Senate committee voted Wednesday to approve a bill that would impose stiffer penalties — including jail time — on adults who provide alcohol to underage drinkers.

David Murk and Paul Li testified about the bright futures of their sons, Alex Murk and Calvin Li, college-bound teenagers who died last June after they got into a car driven by an intoxicated classmate after a party in Montgomery County at which minors were drinking alcohol.

“My heart was shattered in pieces,” Li told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, describing his trip to the morgue to see his son’s body. Murk said parents in his neighborhood continue to host parties where teenagers are allowed to drink.“We’re not seeing change in the community . . . as we try to make sense of his death,” he said.

The committee, which had planned to hear testimony but not to take a vote on the proposed legislation, was visibly moved. Before all of the witnesses had finished, Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), the committee chairman, took the unusual step of calling for a vote on the bill.

It passed unanimously. The audience cheered, and members of the Murk and Li families cried.

Under the legislation that has been dubbed “Alex and Calvin’s Law,” a person who provides alcohol to someone younger than 21 would receive a prison sentence of up to one year and/or a fine of up to $5,000 for first offense. They would receive two years of incarceration and/or a $7,500 fine for a second or subsequent offense.

Maryland law imposes lesser fines and no jail time for providing alcohol to those who are underage. Twenty-six other states include the possibility of jail time for adults convicted of providing alcohol to people younger than 21.

“The current maximums are wholly inadequate,” said Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery), sponsor of the new bill. “It’s about deterrence and having that message go out to the community.”

[‘We felt invincible’: Report details deadly wreck, party that preceded it]

Murk and Li began their quest for tougher penalties after Kenneth Saltzman, whose house was the site of the party Alex and Calvin had attended, was 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.

“It was a slap in our face,” said Murk, wearing the black ribbon on his lapel that he wore to court to learn Saltzman’s fate. “It was appalling and shocking to see that Maryland law did not have any criminal penalties associated with this type of activity.”

Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery) said he had “never seen a more powerful presentation,” adding that lawmakers have to “act like grown-ups and deal with this serious problem.”

Sen. Justin D. Ready (R-Carroll) agreed. “We do need a cultural shift,” he said.

[Report: Teens said parent allowed parties ‘on a regular basis’]

Montgomery County Capt. Tom Didone said police have cracked down on 30 underage drinking parties since the teenagers’ deaths. A third of them, he said, were hosted by adults.

“They don’t worry about it,” Didone said of the parents. “If we can deal with the parents, we have a fighting chance of getting control of underage drinking.”

After the hearing in the Senate committee, Murk and Li headed to the House Judiciary Committee late Wednesday to tell their story to the delegates. The bill must also be approved by that panel to be considered by the full legislature.

The House panel was considering more than a dozen bills related to illegal drinking, including “Noah’s Law,” a bill named after a 24-year-old police officer killed last year by a suspected drunk driver. That bill would require motorists convicted of driving at or above the legal blood-alcohol limit of 0.08 percent 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 to avoid having their licenses suspended.

Rich Leotta, the father of Noah Leotta, testified before the House panel on Wednesday as well. Both hearings drew large numbers of law enforcement officials.
Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery), the sponsor of Noah’s Law, blamed the liquor lobby for the legislation’s failure to move out of the House committee in past years. “This is the only bill that we can say for a fact that is going to save lives when passed,” he said.

At a news conference before the hearings, Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said too many people have needlessly died “on Maryland highways over the years because of our weak drunk-driving laws and weak drunk-driving penalties.”

“Today, public safety is speaking with one voice. Let’s hope that our elected officials are listening.”

Dan Morse contributed to this report.

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