Making Sausage Is Not A Pretty Process

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A quote often misattributed to Otto von Bismarck but actually said by American poet John Godfrey Saxe, holds that “laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”

A slogan for much of what transpired in Annapolis in 2016, and none of it is new. When elections roll around, everyone praises their own work and that of their colleagues. Great strides are always being made, and progress being accomplished. But the reality is that even “good” bills get butchered beyond recognition. Take the 2013 increase in the minimum wage. It only went to $10.10/hour, full implementation got delayed until 2018, when now the discussion is about $15, and huge exemptions were created, including leaving out tipped workers entirely, a class of workers who are exploited and abused like no other. Not a bill to be proud of, but the bill’s limitations don’t get discussed much.

And it’s not just good laws that get weakened, it’s bad – terrible, awful, ill-conceived abominations – laws that pass with little or no discussion. But we’ll save SB679 for a bit later today.

Ovetta Wiggins of the Post has a story about one of the most talked about accomplishments of the legislature this year – Alex and Calvin’s Law, for the two high school students killed in a car accident after a party at which a parent served alcohol to underage kids. Good for Wiggins for writing these kinds of articles, and good for the legislators who have and hopefully will continue to call out the shenanigans that happen when nobody is looking.

The bill was unanimously approved by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee after an emotional hearing. Committee member Jamie Raskin moved for an immediate vote, which is Never Done, but in this case it was, and the vote was unanimous, as was the vote on the Senate floor. Then it moved to the House.

Alex and Calvin’s bill first ran into trouble in the House Judiciary Committee, where Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery) raised concerns that bill could be applied to people other than parents who host underage drinking parties.

Moon’s questions opened a discussion about whether a 21-year-old college student who gave a beer to a 20-year-old would be subject to going to jail.

Moon said he talked to Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo (D-Montgomery), the House bill’s sponsor, and to Montgomery County police. The House committee settled on an amendment to the bill that specified that the jail time and $5,000 fine would apply only to adults who host parties where alcohol is provided.

“We were getting push back on the ‘jail college kids’ problem,” Moon said. “So we put jail on parents hosting house parties.”

Insert editorial comment here. Well, two, actually. First, there’s an enormous difference between what MIGHT happen in a criminal courtroom and what DOES happen. Example: second degree assault in Maryland carries the POSSIBILITY of a ten year prison sentence. NOBODY ever gets ten years for second degree assault unless maybe if the case started as a murder case and the jury wasn’t buying it and compromised all the way down to assault. But if you shove your friend and he presses charges, you’re NOT GETTING TEN YEARS IN JAIL. Even if you walk in and confess and beg for mercy without a lawyer, you’re not getting ten years. In fact, you’re not getting jail at all. More likely probation and a small fine. Anyone who’s spent any time in a criminal courtroom could tell you this. So I’m not sure what my friend David Moon was so concerned about, and why he felt he needed to amend a good, tough new law. I wish he’d called me first.

Which brings us to comment number two. When a delegate amends a law that’s come over untouched by the Senate, that gives senators a second bite at the apple. So after the House amendments, senators who had felt compelled by the unusual motion by Jamie Raskin for an immediate vote to leave the bill alone, now had an opportunity to wreak havoc on the bill. And nobody the past two years does havoc like Bobby Zirkin, the chair of JPR. He went to work.

When the amended bill went back to the Senate, Zirkin had new concerns. Even with the amendment, he said, he thought the bill could be applied far more broadly than intended — to college students, rather than to parents of teens.

“We wanted to make sure we passed a bill that dealt with the issue that was before us,” Zirkin said. “We wanted to be more specific on who we were trying to put a jail sentence on. . . . I don’t want to see police officers showing up with [patrol wagons] at Morgan State University, Coppin State or the University of Maryland. I don’t think anyone wants to see that. ”

Fraser-Hidalgo said that given the link between drinking and sexual assaults on college campuses, he did not understand “why we’re so worried about defending 21- and 22-year-olds.”

He called the changes to the bill “disheartening for everyone.”

The House of Delegates agreed to accept the Senate committee’s amendments on April 11, the final day of session. Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery), who sponsored the legislation in the Senate, said time was running out, and lawmakers thought they had little choice.

“It was either going to be that language or no bill,” Feldman said. “We felt it was important to get a bill passed. . . . We were running up against midnight.”

So a bill that originally was going to put teeth into the state’s underage drinking law will now only apply if police can prove that (1) the adult providing the alcohol can be shown to know that the underage person was going to drive, and (b) serious injury or death results. 

As amended, this is a toothless and useless law. The point wasn’t to create liability for bad things – it’s to stop adults from throwing parties for teenagers. And now it encourages them to abdicate even minimal oversight. If an irresponsible adult – let’s call him Mr. Dumbass – wants to avoid jail time, Mr. Dumbass should just buy 12 kegs of beer, leave them in the backyard, and go out for the night. When young, unfortunate teenager Sam drinks himself into unconsciousness and then gets behind the wheel, careens down the road and kills two of his friends – say, Alex and Calvin – Mr. Dumbass can say, “hey, I never even met Sam, Alex or Calvin. You can’t prove that I knew shit from shinola about these people or what they would do.”

And sadly, Mr. Dumbass will be right. The result will be no different than current law. Thanks, Senator Zirkin. That’s some mighty fine sausage you cooked up there.

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