Harsher penalties for accidents caused by cell phones
Wednesday, 19 March 2014 10:57

Decriminalization of marijuana bill passes Senate

by Bill Gates

    Just when you thought the Maryland General Assembly was through cracking down on cell phone use while driving .... a bill known as “Jake’s Law” passed the House of Delegates last week.
    If passed into law, the bill will impose tougher penalties on drivers responsible for accidents causing death or serious injury if it is determined they were distracted by their handheld cell phones.
    Drivers found guilty of such an offense would face up to a year in prison and fines of up to $5,000.
    The bill is named after Jake Owen, a five-year-old  who was killed in an auto accident near Baltimore in 2011.
    The other driver was found to be talking on his cell phone when his vehicle — traveling at 62 miles per hour — struck the one in which Jake was riding in the back seat.
    The investigation determined that the driver never touched his brakes — despite traffic having stopped about 500 yards ahead of him.
    But the driver was found guilty only of negligent driving and failure to control his speed and was fined $1,000.
    Had the driver been found to be intoxicated, he would likely have received jail time.
    That prompted Jake’s parents to campaign for legislation making the penalties for causing an accident while using  a cell phone to be equal to those for driving drunk.
    The bill, HB 1212, passed the House of Delegates by a 111-25 vote.

“The bill gets at the issue of distracted driving and its potential disastrous consequences,” said Del. John Olsezewski Jr., who voted in favor of the bill along with his 6th District colleagues Joseph “Sonny” Minnick and Michael Weir Jr.
    “I was surprised to learn distracted driving is a greater cause of death among young people than drunk driving currently is now,” Olszewski said. “And a person who is a distracted driver stops their car 40 feet beyond someone who is driving with a 0.08 blood alcohol content.”
    The bill as passed by the House of Delegates would create a one-year penalty for a person found to be texting or using their phone (without using hands-free technologies) while driving at the time of the accident.
    Police officers, if they have a reasonable belief the phone was related to the distracted driving and accident, have the authority to get the phone number and phone carrier of the driver.
    This has led to opposition from privacy advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union, who argued against the bill on the grounds that people carry much of their personal information on their phones and that police could possibly exploit cell phone information in search of crimes unrelated to the auto accident.
    The Senate version of the bill, SB 348, is still in the Judicial Proceedings Committee. The House bill is now also in that Senate committee.

Marijuana  decriminalization passes Senate
    The bill which would make the possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil offense rather than a crime passed the Senate on Friday by a vote of 36-8.
    It has now moved over to the House of Delegates and is being heard in the Judiciary Committee.
    Under the bill, SB 364, anyone caught with 10 grams or less of marijuana would be issued a civil citation and fined up to $100.
    Juveniles would be required to appear in court and could be ordered into drug treatment (as could adults on their third citation).
    “I believe the bill has an uncertain future in the House,” Olszewski said. “I want to see what proposal, if any, comes forward from the Judiciary Committee on this issue before making any final commitments.”
    The House did approve legislation on Monday that makes it easier for patients to use medical marijuana.
    The bill, which passed by a vote of 127-9, would allow certified physicians to discuss the option of medical marijuana with patients and then recommend its use.
    Currently, using marijuana for medical reasons is legal in Maryland but it must be obtained from a small list of approved medical centers such as the University of Maryland Medical System and Johns Hopkins University.
    Those approved centers have declined to participate.
    “We passed a sensible medical marijuana reform that will allow people that are most in need to have access through a regulated and controlled mechanism,” Olszewski said. “I remain convinced full legalization of marijuana remains at least a few years off.”