- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 2, 2002

RICHMOND A House of Delegates committee yesterday approved a watered-down version of a bill that would ban open alcoholic beverage containers in vehicles, but the measure does not meet federal standards and could cost the state millions of dollars in federal funds.
The House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee voted 20-2 to approve a substitute version of a bill offered by state Sen. Thomas K. Norment, Williamsburg Republican.
Mr. Norment's bill would ban an open-alcohol container anywhere in the passenger compartment of a vehicle, regardless of whether it is in the possession of the driver or a passenger.
But the bill sent to the full House by the committee would allow possession by a passenger as long as the driver did not exhibit signs of having consumed the alcohol.
If police stop a driver who exhibits such signs, the driver would have to present evidence or witnesses in court to overcome a legal presumption that he or she had consumed the alcohol. A conviction would punishable by a $250 fine.
The same committee and the full House have shot down various attempts over the past few years for Virginia to have an open container law. Supporters said the committee's passage of the bill shows a willingness to curb drunken driving.
"We tried to make some adjustments. All I consider this bill really as an incremental step," Mr. Norment said. "It's affording law enforcement the opportunity for greater enforcement."
Because the bill does not cover passengers, a federal law will shift $12.4 million from Virginia's highway fund to alcohol education programs this year. Virginia already has had $12 million in federal highway funds diverted because of its refusal to pass an open-container ban.
Thirty-four states and the District ban open alcohol containers in passenger compartments, according to the Washington Regional Alcohol Program.
"It's clearly a step in the right direction," Delegate Albert C. Pollard Jr., Northern Neck Democrat, said of the committee's passage of the open-container bill. "I don't like the federal government dictating a policy, but that does not necessarily mean this is bad policy."
Opponents of the open-container bill said they do not like to be dictated to by the federal government and that innocent people could be arrested just for having an open container of alcohol in their car when they were not drinking.
"I absolutely reject, and I think we should all reject, an effort to have Virginia's policy shaped by these kinds of considerations," said Delegate Robert Hurt, Pittsylvania County Republican. "In some quarters, it's bribery."
Mr. Hurt voted for the bill.
The modified version of Mr. Norment's bill is expected to pass both the House and Senate.
Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, said yesterday he supported the original, stricter version of the bill, but he said that does not mean he will veto the new version.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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