WASHINGTON — After facing years of criticism, the passage of Noah’s Law in 2016 was supposed to show that Maryland lawmakers took drunken driving seriously and were willing to impose stronger sentences.
But now advocates are growing frustrated that the law may not be having the impact it was supposed to thanks to a loophole that allows some people to walk out of court with minimal sentences.
When Gov. Larry Hogan signed The Drunk Driving Reduction Act of 2016, or Noah’s Law, it was widely thought anyone caught driving under the influence would have to get an ignition interlock put on their car, even on the first offense, just like several other states have implemented.
The devices, which come with Noah’s picture on them in Maryland, require you to pass a breathalyzer before you start your car and subsequently again at random times as you drive.
But a key phrase in the way the law was written left open a big loophole.
“The law initially had in it that it was upon arrest that a person would get an interlock,” said Rich Leotta, the father of Montgomery County Police Officer Noah Leotta, whose death at the hands of a drunken driver inspired the law.
“At the last minute, the last half-hour, what people didn’t know is they changed that so it was upon conviction.”
As many Maryland drivers who have gotten a ticket for one reason or another know, the state can be very lenient on people who show up to court with otherwise clean driving records.
Lots of people can be seen leaving traffic report with a sigh of relief after pleading “probation before judgment” and learning that a speeding ticket or blown stop sign will disappear from their records if they don’t get pulled over again during a set period of time.
But the “probation before judgment” law also applies to people caught driving drunk.
“What is happening, and it seems to be relatively pervasive throughout the state of Maryland, since they have that discretion, many judges are just giving probation before judgment, a ‘PBJ,’ without any consequences,” Leotta said.
He called the penalty “a slap on the wrist” in this situation.
Prosecutors said they are frustrated too.
“We do see a lot of probation before judgment,” said Prince George’s County State’s Attorney spokesman John Erzen, when asked about sentences handed down to first-time offenders.
“It’s something that a lot of times we object to,” he said. “We would like to see people held accountable.”
While acknowledging there might be isolated cases where a “PBJ” could be appropriate when it comes to DUIs, Erzen also calls Noah’s Law a critical tool that can help reduce roadway fatalities.
“It’s judges’ discretion,” Erzen said. “We favor the conviction and the enforcement of Noah’s Law because we’re looking at the whole picture and the opportunity to potentially save a life.”
“The enforcement side, they’re doing their aspect of it,” Leotta said. “But when you get into the judicial side, they’re falling short. Way short.”
Leotta blames the way the law was amended just before it passed.
“They have to get to conviction,” Leotta said. “But by giving a ‘PBJ’ they’re not getting to conviction and therefore they can evade the usage of an interlock, and therefore they are trampling on Noah’s Law.”
Leotta stressed he’s not trying to ruin lives and he doesn’t think every single drunken driving arrest should end with the driver thrown in jail.
“What we’re trying to do is change their behavior so they don’t do it again,” Leotta said.
“I get having the judges to have discretion. Look, I understand about leniency. I get all of that. But having interlock is very lenient. That’s the whole aspect of it.”
“Noah’s Law is not being used as the tool that it was supposed to be used for to have more drunken drivers have an interlock,” he added.
“The judges seem to have forgotten that even with leniency you can still protect the victims and the community by ensuring, as an aspect of the ‘PBJ,’ that you have an interlock installed on the car for a period of time. They need to be doing that.”
On Tuesday, WTOP will explain what Rich Leotta and other advocates are planning next.