Auto manslaughter bill moves ahead in House
A bill that proponents contend would close the gap between a traffic ticket and a felony vehicular manslaughter charge for drivers responsible for the deaths of others has won approval from the House committee where it had languished for many years.
The bill to establish an intermediate charge of manslaughter by criminal negligence won prelimary approval from the full House Wednesday after recieiving a unanimous vote Tuesday night in the House Judiciary Committee, where it had been stalled for many years without receiving a vote.
The bill's advance cheered advocates for bicyclists' groups such as Bike Maryland, who are among the most vocal supporters of the legislation. But their joy could be short-lived because even if the bill passes on a final vote in the House, it faces a skeptical reception in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of that panel, expressed misgivings about creating an offense carrying a jail term for conduct that was negligent but not intentional or reckless.
"In the past the House formula has had severe defects," the Montgomery County Democrat said. "Maybe this year they'll come up with a formula that will work.'
But Frosh said he's concerned about imposing harsh penalties on drivers who may have killed others as a result of "split-second negligence."
"Our jails are bursting right now," he said. "To me the jails are a place for people who have done something that is intentional."
Frosh said somebody who kills another through automotive negligence can face harsh consequences in civil lawsuits. "You can lose your house for that. You can lose your kids' college fund," he said.
The measure faces a handicap because their is only a House bill, and senators will not hear the emotional testimony from survivors of victims that helped persuade the House panel to approve it. Rather, as is customary for bills that are not cross-filed, the bill will probably receive a sponsor-only hearing in the Senate committee.
That would leave it up to House sponsor Del. Luis R S. Simmons, D-Montgomery, to sell the Senate panel on the merits of his formula, which allows for the enhanced charge in the event of "substantial and unjustifiable" negligence.