OCEAN CITY — If Governor Larry Hogan is successful in pushing through one of his latest initiatives, more drivers arrested on drunk-driving charges will be riding with ignition interlock devices inside their vehicles.
Hogan last week announced a proposed expansion of the state’s ignition interlock system in the hopes of reducing the number of drunk drivers on the roadways and saving lives across the state. While few would argue with the intent of the proposed changes, the result could be tens of thousands of drivers in Maryland riding around with ignition interlock systems on their vehicles, reducing the number of suspended or revoked driver’s licenses while potentially adding thousands of drivers to the Motor Vehicle Administration’s monitoring program.
In 1989, Maryland’s Ignition Interlock program began implementing a device that prevents a car from starting when it detects a certain level of alcohol on a driver’s breath. Under current regulations, those offenders who register a .15 blood-alcohol level or higher are allowed to opt in to the program and keep their licenses without having an administrative hearing with the MVA, while those who register .08 to .14 are not allowed to opt in.
When an individual gets arrested for DUI or DWI in Maryland, they are generally put on parallel paths for the disposition of their cases. The court system handles the guilt or innocence of a defendant which can result in jail time, probation and fines for example. Meanwhile, the MVA deals with suspending a defendant’s ability to drive based on a variety of factors including breath results, refusal to take a breath test or the convictions that occur in court. On the court side, guilt or innocence is held to a standard of reasonable doubt, while the MVA hearings are generally not as in-depth and rely largely on the preponderance of the evidence.
Currently, those who refuse to take a breath test at the time of their arrest have their driver’s licenses suspended for 120 days with no driving privileges at all, or they can forego the suspension and opt into the ignition interlock program for one full year. Those who do take the test and blow .15 or higher have their driver’s licenses suspended for 90 days for first offenders, or can opt into the ignition interlock program for one full year.
For those who take the test and blow .08 to .14, the suspension is 45 days, but because it’s a lower result, the MVA will allow those offenders to seek a restricted license for 45 days, which will allow them to drive only to work, school, doctor’s appointments or alcohol counseling classes, for example. Those who blow between .08 and .14 have not been offered entry into the ignition interlock program, but Hogan’s proposal would allow all arrestees to opt into ignition interlock.
Essentially, the proposed change would allow all DUI arrestees to participate in ignition interlock without an administrative hearing.
“Our administration is committed to protecting all Marylanders by taking the common sense steps that will help prevent drunk driving,” said Hogan this week. “These proposed regulations will make our roads and communities safer by ensuring past drunk driving offenders cannot start their car after they have been drinking.”
On average, there are 7,900 impaired crashes in Maryland each year, resulting in around 170 fatalities per year, all of which are preventable. Closer to home, from 2010 to 2014, there was an average of 376 DUI arrests in Ocean City each year, but that total has climbed to 448 through October this year with two full months to go. 0
The hope is expanding the ignition interlock program to include all DUI offenders will prevent those crash and fatality statistics from climbing higher. Noted DUI Attorney Brian H. Clark, who has defended countless DUI defendants in Ocean City in recent years, agreed with expanding the program conceptually, but said it won’t happen without some challenges.
“As with anything, the devil is in the details and how these new regulations are implemented,” he said. “Some people and organizations, including the beer and wine industries, feel that the focus should be on putting those with high breath results on ignition interlock. They cite statistics and studies saying alcohol-related crashes are caused by those with a blood-alcohol content of .15 or higher in 70 percent of the cases.”
If Hogan’s proposal is passed, it could add another 20,000 to 40,000 DUI offenders to the ignition lock program. Currently, there are around 11,000 offenders on the program who are monitored by the MVA. Some detractors suggest effectively tripling that number could create enforcement issues for the MVA, but Clark isn’t concerned with the increased workload, given the potential upside.
“They think adding those who blow .08 to .14 into the program will overwhelm the MVA in being able to absorb and effectively monitor these people,” he said. “I disagree with that theory in many respects as I think the private interlock companies and the MVA can ramp up and handle the increased volume.”
Again, under the current system, those who blow .15 or higher can opt into ignition interlock for a full year, but Clark suggested adding those with a considerably lower BAC could create some confusion with the time periods for offenders.
“The unknowns are how long a person who blows between .08 and .14 can be required to keep the interlock device in their car,” he said. “It obviously will be less than the current one-year requirement now in existence for those that blow .15 or higher or refuse a test.”
There will also likely be challenges from a litigation standpoint, according to Clark.
“Will judges in District and Circuit Court be more likely to make a defendant who blows between .08 and .14 get the ignition interlock device installed in their car as a condition of any probation?” he said. “This could cause defendants and defense attorneys to possibly litigate these cases more intensively or appeal guilty verdicts to avoid judges known for demanding interlock devices in these lower breath result defendants.”
Entry into the ignition interlock program comes with a steep price. The cost to install the device is around $100 and the monthly monitoring fee runs between $70 and $90. There are currently around a half dozen MVA-approved interlock companies and program participants are required to report to a designated service location every 30 days to have their data collected. In addition to the cost and inconvenience, participation in the ignition interlock program comes with other baggage, according to Clark.
“There is a stigma attached to having an ignition interlock device in your car,” he said. “Your family, friends, children and co-workers can likely see you blowing into the device and it’s a very embarrassing thing. The repeat offenders and those highly intoxicated drivers usually opt into the program because they need to keep their driving privileges. They do a cost-benefit analysis in their head and have to enroll.”
Nonetheless, expanding the program would likely achieve the desired results, according to Clark.
“There is no doubt that the interlock program works and works well,” he said. “Any defense attorney doing DUIs can tell you stories of hearing their clients complaining about how effective it is and how they hate the stigma and expense of it. Once that expense and stigma is now a reality for those who are less impaired and consider themselves ‘social drinkers’ who don’t need daily monitoring every time they start their car, then we will see how the public reacts. I suppose many will do whatever legally possible to avoid getting the interlock, depending on the specifics of how long they are expected to keep it installed.”