Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008

Minors may face drug test to get driver’s license

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ANNAPOLIS — A Democratic lawmaker wants to test all driver’s license applicants under 21 for drugs and vows to ‘‘fight like a tiger” to push the legislation, which he hopes will save lives.

But opponents say the policy is unconstitutional, ineffective and prohibitively expensive.

The legislation, introduced by Del. Marvin E. Holmes Jr. (D-Dist. 23B) of Kettering, would require the Motor Vehicle Administration to test the breath and blood of driver’s license applicants under 21 for alcohol and controlled dangerous substances.

A positive test would result in the suspension of driving privileges for six months, although the applicant would be entitled to a hearing.

About 65,000 individuals under 21 applied for driver’s licenses in Maryland in 2007, according to legislative analysts, who estimate an annual cost increase of at least $945,500 in the first year and more than $1.2 million annually by 2010.

Holmes said he was spurred by reports of drunken driving and youth drug abuse in his district.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,467 drivers age 15 to 20 were killed nationally in 2005. Of those, 28 percent had been drinking.

Holmes plans to revise the bill in light of criticism it received last week at a House Environmental Matters Committee Hearing.

John Kuo, administrator for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, said the policy could lead to severe customer service delays and pose ‘‘very serious operational problems.” The MVA would have to equip its locations with drug testing equipment and additional personnel at an enormous cost.

‘‘The intent of the bill is good, and we need to remove more people who have drugs or alcohol in their systems from our roadways,” said 1st Sgt. Tom Woodward of the Maryland State Police, who also testified in opposition. ‘‘It’s just the logistics that are going to be a problem.”

Woodward said that because of the level of evidence required and other legal issues, the testing might be defaulted to the state police.

‘‘We don’t have the personnel or equipment to do that testing,” he said. ‘‘We’re talking about tripling what we already do.”

Maryland has no appropriate in-state blood testing labs, resulting in a cost of nearly $150 per specimen in collection, shipping and testing costs, he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland denounced the bill in written statements, writing that general drug testing is costly, unconstitutional and has no proven effect on young people’s drug use.

The Maryland Office of the Public Defender was also opposed, raising concerns over positive results from legal alcohol consumption, such as with family, and the confidentiality of test results.

They also wondered if the legislation could eventually lead to testing for drugs of driver’s license applicants of all ages without probable cause.

Holmes said the original legislation was intended to test all applicants, but he redirected it to target minors after constitutional issues were raised.

‘‘This is an effort to help prevent young persons [who abuse drugs] from getting driver’s licenses in the very beginning,” he said.

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