Sunday, April 3, 2011

Making the Case...For and Against a New Vehicular Manslaughter Law

Supporters of Maryland House Bill 363, a bill supporters say would finally put teeth in Maryland's vehicular manslaughter laws--adding jail terms of up to 3 years--are worried. The bill made it out of the House, but it could stall in the Senate. Here's why: one Senator critical to getting the bill out of committee, has real reservations about it. Keep reading to see what we're reporting on WTOP and to listen to past testimony from witnesses at the House hearing earlier in the session.'s the second version:

When I asked Frosh about the frustrations that State's Attorneys in Maryland have expressed--former Prince George's State's Attorney Glen Ivey used to say the toughest part of his job was telling families of those killed in crashes that the driver who caused the wreck would likely walk away with nothing more than a fine--Frosh suggested that prosecutors simply weren't pursuing those cases aggressively enough. That kind of talk irritates prosecutors. Years ago, when I interviewed then-Montgomery County State's Attorney Doug Gansler, who now serves as Attorney General for Maryland, we talked about the issue, he rolled his eyes when he repeated that argument--that prosecutors were somehow dropping the ball.

So now, advocates for tougher legislation are worried that they've cleared obstacles in one house--only to see the bill die in committee on the Senate side. So they are working hard to get supporters to lobby lawmakers. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association has a summary of the situation, and Bike Maryland has a full legislative agenda here.

What are your thoughts?

Frosh is quick to point out he's a cyclist; he's been biking to his Bethesda office for years, so he's not insensitive to the need to keep cyclists and pedestrians safe. But Frosh argues that under the proposed legislation, any of the things that drivers commonly do: drinking a cup of coffee, trying to eat on the run, even turning to reprimand a child in a back seat, could result in a crash, and that could land the driver in jail. He argues the law ought to be reserved for those who drive recklessly. One of the sponsors of the bill, Delegate Luiz Simmons, argues the current law is "cosmically absurd", with an impossibly high standard for prosecutors to prove.

And the parents of those killed in wrecks point to how the loopholes in the law allow drivers with even the most egregious driving records to offend again and again.  Edward Kohls has testified for two years in a row about how the man who killed his 15 year old son Connor was allowed to keep driving, and racked up another DUI--after his son's 2008 death.  Another witness offered this bitter testimony before the House, saying she was tempted to print a bumper sticker: "Want to kill someone? Use a gun, go to jail. Use a car, go free."

Here are the stories filed back in February, when I covered the House hearing:




  1. Kate - I really appreciate your coverage of HB 363. Unfortunately, Senator Frosh misrepresents the bill. The bill clearly states that fatalities as a result of simple negligence are not included in "criminal negligence" Criminal negligence is clearly defined as those causing fatalities by taking substantial and unjustifiable risks.

  2. SAVTA,

    Thanks for your comment, and you are right in regards to what the bill says. Here's the part of the bill you refer to, and the language will certainly come up in debate and discussion in the hearing on Wednesday:

    "FOR the purpose of making it a misdemeanor for a person to cause the death of another as a result of the person's driving, operating, or controlling a vehicle or vessel in a criminally negligent manner, establishing the circumstances under which a person is considered to act in a criminally negligent manner for purposes of this Act; establishing that it is not an offense under this Act for a person to cause the death of another as a result of the person’s driving, operating, or controlling a vehicle or vessel in a negligent manner; establishing certain penalties; stating the intent of the General Assembly with respect to the
    interpretation of a certain term; defining a certain term; and generally relating to criminally negligent manslaughter by vehicle or vessel."