Monday, August 26, 2013

DAN FURMANSKY: Del. Don Dwyer Must Be Ousted, But Due to Weak Laws, He May Retain His Seat in the Maryland House

Below, Maryland Juice writer Dan Furmansky provides an update and commentary on the second drunk-driving case involving Maryland's Tea Party lawmaker Don Dwyer.

DAN FURMANSKY: Kudos to The Baltimore Sun — which, incidentally, will not be bought by the Koch Brothers, thanks to all that is good and holy in the world. The paper has been running excellent coverage of very sad situation of Del. Don Dwyer. First was The Sun’s fantastic editorial about Del. Dwyer’s second arrest for driving under the influence. The paper hit all the marks, and did so sensitively. The entire piece is worth reading, but here is a snippet (excerpt below)
BALTIMORE SUN: We join Mr. Dwyer's colleagues from both sides of the General Assembly aisle in asking that he seek help in some appropriate residential treatment program. He should also resign from office. It's clear enough that the burden of public life is too much of a distraction for the delegate and may well be what's preventing him from fully appreciating his grave circumstances.
We take no joy in this development. The path to sobriety is seldom an easy one or without setbacks. Nor do we necessarily fully understand the personal demons and difficulties that may have contributed to his circumstances.

But we do know this: Such behavior is unbecoming a state legislator. Current state law, which does not give the state legislature authority to remove Mr. Dwyer from office nor for his District 31 constituents to seek his recall, is once again proving itself inadequate in the matter of a law-breaking elected official in this state. It is up to the delegate to do the right thing....
Now today’s article in The Sun, entitled “Law likely won't force Dwyer from office,” has more to say on the matter (excerpt below):
BALTIMORE SUN: Fellow lawmakers have called on Del. Don Dwyer Jr. to resign after his drunken-driving arrest Tuesday, but there is little in Maryland law to force that outcome, a review of the state’s statutes on removal from office shows.... 
State voters approved a constitutional amendment last year to automatically suspend elected officials from office once they are found guilty of a felony or certain misdemeanors related to their official duties. If they remain guilty after exhausting the appeals process, they are permanently removed.

Tiffany Alston, a former Democratic delegate from Prince George’s County, was removed from office last fall after she was convicted of misconduct in office — a crime that officials determined related directly to her official duties.

But DUI, like boating while drunk, is a misdemeanor that would not be construed as having to do with service in office, according to the state attorney general’s office. The General Assembly has broad discretion to discipline its members but can expel only with a two-thirds vote of the full membership of the chamber in question....

Furthermore, it’s not clear that there is any political appetite to begin that process in Dwyer’s case. House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Annapolis Democrat, criticized Dwyer’s conduct as “unbecoming of a legislator” but said his future in the legislature “will be decided by his own conscience … or, ultimately, by the voters.”

Maryland is not one of the 19 states that allows for a citizen recall of an elected official, so it is indeed up to the General Assembly to take action if Del. Dwyer does not resign on his own. Legislators need to find their political appetite to deal with this, as a matter of moral imperative, or pass appropriate legislation allowing for automatic removal of a legislator convicted twice of a misdemeanor that endangers people’s lives. Call it the Delegate Don Dwyer Act of 2014.

It’s one thing to show mercy to a legislator dealing with alcoholism, who makes a life-endangering mistake one time, accepts that they have a serious problem with alcohol, and takes the steps necessary to ensure they will never endanger another life again, while also accepting their legal punishment. I could see the General Assembly choosing to reprimand that contrite legislator while not going so far as to remove him or her from office. Such a move would at least be fathomable.

But the idea that Del. Dwyer can be caught driving under the influence—endangering lives—for a second time and continue to be considered fit for public office makes a mockery out of our state’s lawmaking body. Del. Dwyer’s crime isn’t that his politics and political approach are disgusting, which they are. His crime isn’t that he is an alcoholic. His crime is endangering people’s lives. Twice.

Notably, Del. Dwyer refused to take a breath test, the results of which usually determine whether someone is charged with driving under the influence or driving while intoxicated, which carries a greater charge. Based upon the arrest report (via CBS News), it appears this was no minor incident (excerpt below):
CBS NEWS: “The officer was immediately concerned for the safety of everyone on the road,” said Justin Mulcahy, Anne Arundel County Police spokesman. “It was driving erratically to say the least.  It crossed over several lanes of traffic multiple times, onto the shoulder several times as well, even getting in front of vehicles.”

According to the official police report, during the traffic stop, the officers could smell a strong odor of alcohol, Dwyer’s speech was slow and slurred, and his eyes were glassy and red.

Police say Dwyer was traveling 70 mph in a 55 mph zone Tuesday morning. His car registration was expired and suspended for emissions, according to the police report.

Police say he failed three field sobriety tests and refused a breath test.

If Del. Tiffany Alston should be automatically removed from office for paying a law firm employee $800 in state money and using campaign funds for wedding expenses, then how can there be a question that driving under the influence after being convicted of the same crime just months before warrants the same?

Had Del. Dwyer struck another vehicle, forcing it to careen off the road, and causing a traumatic brain injury to its passenger, do you think we would even be having this conversation? Doubtful. Blessedly, the police intervened in time, and that did not happen. That’s lucky for both Del. Dwyer, and the people who might be dead right now had he remained behind the wheel for just a few more minutes.

But regardless of how much harm Del. Dwyer caused to others on this second, law-breaking occasion, if he is convicted of a DUI misdemeanor for a second time, the General Assembly must take the necessary action to remove him from office. If the Ethics Committee feels this situation is outside the purview of its job, because the violation was not directly involved with Del. Dwyer’s official duties, then current law must be amended in some appropriate way to clarify that office-holders twice convicted of a misdemeanor that endangers lives will be removed from office.

Fool me once, shame on you…fool me twice…

- Dan Furmansky

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