- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2008

ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland Senate yesterday scaled back an attempt to stiffen penalties for giving alcohol to minors, fearing the bill would have made criminals of people at fraternity parties and football tailgates.

The proposal is to make providing alcohol to people younger than 21 a misdemeanor crime. Giving alcohol to minors is illegal in Maryland but currently is punishable only by a civil fine.

“Maybe you want to give misdemeanors to every kid in College Park,” home of the state’s flagship university, said Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, the Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored an amendment modifying the bill.

Mr. Zirkin said giving alcohol to children is already a crime, covered by laws against contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Citing football games and college parties, Mr. Zirkin said drinkers ages 18 to 21 should not face jail time.

“We’re going to have thousands of new criminals in our midst for giving a 19- or 20-year-old a beer,” he said. “These are not children.”

Mr. Zirkin said the bill would have started a new “class of criminals who had a party after a Terrapin game.”

The Senate approved Mr. Zirkin’s amendment, on a 23-22 vote, to increase civil fines for supplying alcohol but not add criminal penalties.

The bill includes a maximum jail time of 60 days for those who give alcohol to people younger than 21, though a judge could waive the time.

The proposal sailed through the House last year but failed in the Senate. It passed unanimously in the lower chamber again this year.

It wasn’t clear whether the Senate’s changes, not final until after another vote pending in a few days, would mean defeat for the measure or whether the House would agree to stick with civil penalties for giving alcohol to underage people.

Supporters of the bill say the stiffer penalties are needed because of the problem of underage drinking.

“We are adults,” said Sen. Lisa Gladden, Baltimore Democrat. “We should know better. Because some people don’t, this is the appropriate measure.”

Though the bill has Republican sponsors in both houses, the debate yesterday didn’t fall along party lines.

“We still have kids dying,” said Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley, who voted against weakening the bill, though others Republican senators agreed to the changes.

“They’re not getting it from liquor stores,” said Mr. Brinkley, Frederick County Republican. “Supposedly, responsible adults are providing the booze.”

Some Democrats also put up a fight against weakening the bill.

Sen. Delores Goodwin Kelley, Baltimore County Democrat, said senators would not consider softer penalties if the substance in question were marijuana, not alcohol.

“This is a mind-altering drug, and it causes more fatalities than does marijuana,” she said.

Senators ultimately were convinced by Mr. Zirkin’s argument that tougher underage-drinking penalties would take discretion away from police officers in deciding how to charge adults giving alcohol to minors.

“This is criminalizing something that takes place, like it or not, every day in this state,” said Sen. James Brochin, Baltimore County Democrat.

•••

A proposal to allow speed cameras at highway work sites won preliminary approval in the Senate yesterday, but not before senators changed the bill to exempt volunteer rescue workers heading to emergencies.

The Senate voted to advance the measure over the objections of members who said the cameras are an intrusion.

Supporters said that the cameras won’t be used in jurisdictions that don’t want them, and that they are needed to reduce work-zone injuries.

A final Senate vote is pending, as is a similar version in the House. The law has the backing of Gov. Martin O’Malley.

•••

Children wouldn’t be allowed to use tanning beds without parental consent under a bill being considered.

The bill originally called for what would have been the nation’s toughest ban on children and tanning beds, with no one younger than 18 allowed. But the House agreed yesterday to an amendment allowing children to use tanning beds if their parents or guardians give consent.

House members called the amendment a compromise, with final approval expected in the coming days.

•••

The Senate voted Monday for a measure to standardize how public schools inform parents that they have a right to deny military recruiters access to students’ contact information.

Now, school systems use a variety of ways to let parents and students know that they can opt out of letting military recruiters know students’ names, addresses and telephone numbers.

The Senate vote was 26-20 in favor of the bill.

Under current law, a public school that provides student information to a person or group that makes students aware of occupational or educational opportunities also must give access to military recruiters, unless parents specifically ask that schools not do that.

The measure requires the principal of each public school to submit a list to the local board of education of each student whose contact information is not to be released to military recruiters.

The bill now heads to the House of Delegates.

•••

It doesn’t look like Maryland will have a ban on texting while driving this year.

A legislative committee on Monday rejected a second attempt to make it a crime to send text messages or type on a BlackBerry while driving. The latest measure was rejected even though it would have exempted emergency use of text messages.

Maryland does not have a ban on using cell phones while driving, and opponents to a text message ban said reckless driving laws already cover people who cause wrecks because of distractions.

The Senate is considering a bill about distracted driving, but it is not clear whether the House would accept such a measure. The Senate could take up its bill today.

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