Two state senators along the border between Prince Georges and Montgomery Counties may determine whether Maryland adopts a proposed law that would make it a crime to kill someone by driving dangerously. House Bill 363 (Manslaughter by Vehicle or Vessel, criminal negligence) passed the Maryland House of Delegates last week, and is now being considered by the Senate Judicial Proceeding Committee, which rejected a similar bill last year. According to advocates for the bill, Senators Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery) (see map) and Victor Ramirez (D-Prince Georges) (see map) are still undecided about whether to support the proposed law.
Every year more bicyclists and pedestrians are killed on the roads of Prince Georges County than any other city or county in our region. Part of the problem are aggressive drivers who speed, tail gate, drive on the wrong side of a double yellow line or drive on the shoulder—and never yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk. In parts of eastern Montgomery county, many immigrants have been struck by automobiles, possibly because drivers were less careful than the pedesrians had expected given their life experiences.
When aggressive drivers kill someone in most states or the District of Columbia, a jail sentence is likely. But not in Maryland. A drunk driver who kills someone in Maryland may be convicted of manslaughter. But to convict a sober driver of vehicular manslaughter requires proving that the driver knew that he or she might kill someone. And that is almost always impossible to prove. In effect, Maryland law has a loophole for sober drivers who kill: unless a passenger testifies that the driver knew he might kill someone, the courts will not allow him to be convicted.
- A driver in Takoma Park swerved off the road and hit a 12-year old girl walking home from school on the sidewalk along Piney Branch Road. He then made a U-turn and drove off, and the girl died. The jury convicted him of manslaughter. But the appeals court overturned the conviction because under Maryland law, this evidence does not prove that the driver was reckless.
- A driver in St. Mary’s county decided not to clear her windshield of frost, other than a small viewing hole. As a result, she could not see anything on the right side of the lane. While fiddling with some items on her lap, she struck and killed a father riding his bicycle on the right side of the road. Because she did not see the cyclist, she could not be convicted of manslaughter for killing him, and was fined $250.
In many states, drivers who kill can be charged with negligent homicide, if their driving is a flagrant violation of the duty to drive carefully—even if there is no proof that the drivers realized they might kill someone. Yet in Maryland there is no such crime.
But this year, the House of Delegates passed House Bill 363 which would create the crime of negligent vehicular homicide in Maryland. If the Senate passes the bill as well, Maryland will join the majority of states in the nation by closing the loophole. But the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee–the key committee deciding the fate of this bill—has been ambivalent. Under Chairman Brian Frosh (D-Bethesda), the Committee passed the bill in 2006 but rejected it in 2010. Advocates for the bill who have contacted all of the senators on the Committee have reported that senators from the Baltimore area generally favor the bill, but that Senators Ramirez, Raskin, and Frosh are all undecided.
Unless Senators hear from their constituents, time may run out before the Committee even considers the bill. Because email is ineffective this late in the session, if you live in either of these two districts, I suggest that you call Senator Ramirez (301-858-3745 and 1-800-492-7122 x3745) or Senator Raskin (301- 858-3634 and 1-800-492-7122 x3634). Even if the Senator is not in, discussing the issue with his staff is useful. If you gain any insights about how they view the issue, please let us know.
(Jim Titus is a member of WABA’s Board of Directors from Prince Georges County)