WASHINGTON - The spotlight is on drunken driving laws in Maryland after a Montgomery County police officer died after being struck by a driver suspected of driving under the influence.
On Thursday, Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger angrily called Maryland's laws as some of the weakest in the nation.
The organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) agreed and said many victims are not getting justice. The head of the group’s Maryland chapter came out in support of Chief Manger.
She said the state’s laws are weak and that judges have too much leeway in deciding the penalties for those found guilty. She also pointed a finger at the head of Maryland’s House Judiciary Committee for getting in the way of stricter laws.
Montgomery County Police Officer Noah Leotta was out looking for drunk drivers last week when he was hit from behind by a man who has been arrested twice before for DWI.
A clearly upset and emotional Chief Manger told reporters Thursday that Luis Gustavo Reluzco was a repeat offender in a preventable crime. He said the state needs to take notice.
"The fact that Noah was out trying to prevent that crime, that crime that ended up killing him, I hope that shines a light on this case and shines a light on the fact that the state of Maryland has some of the weakest penalties for drunk drivers,” he said. “And in fact, as we look ahead to the prosecution of this case, I can tell you that whenever it’s done, there is little chance of real justice being done.”
"In Maryland, when you are arrested for a first time for an impaired driving crash, you get a probation before judgment, and that's what we see and essentially it’s a slap on the wrist,” said Lisa Spicknall, state program director for MADD.
She said Maryland is way behind other states in enacting tougher laws.
"We have been fighting for the past five years for an all-offender ignition interlock law,” said Spicknall. “The ignition interlock is essentially the blow-and-go device you put in your car for all first-time offenders and all of our statistics show that it reduces fatalities by up to 46 percent.”
But Spicknall said they can't convince the lawmakers in Annapolis.
"We have not been able to get it through a House Judiciary Committee,” said Spicknall. “We have not in the past had the support of Speaker [Michael] Busch or [Senate] President [Thomas V. Mike] Miller and that's what we need to get this law passed.”
The head of the committee, Joseph Vallario, who represents Prince George’s County, has said as recently as this year that the state's drunken driving laws are strict enough.
We tried to contact the delegate on Friday and even went to his office in Marlow Heights, but he did not respond to our request for an interview.
"We are still seeing upwards of 20,000 DUI arrests each and every year, so if our laws are working, why are we still having 20,000 arrests? Why are we still having 121 families having to live through losing a loved one?” Spicknall said.
Chief Manger said one-third of all of the fatal collisions in the county this year involved a drunk driver.
No charges have been filed against Reluzco. Investigators are awaiting the results of a blood test to determine his blood alcohol content.
But Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy said he has already assigned two prosecutors to the case and numerous charges against the Olney man could be filed.