Montgomery County Police Chief Outraged after Officer’s Death

Montgomery County Police Chief Outraged after Officer’s Death

Chief Manger says Maryland law doesn't go far enough to provide justice for people who are killed by drunken drivers

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Montgomery County Police Chief Thomas Manger

File photo by Aaron Kraut

Shortly after a Montgomery County police officer died Thursday from injuries sustained when he was struck by a vehicle last week, Police Chief Thomas Manger said there is little chance justice will be served because Maryland’s drunken driving laws aren’t tough enough.

Manger said the man driving the vehicle that struck Officer Noah Leotta had been drinking for four hours before the collision and had smoked marijuana. Leotta, 24, died Thursday at a local hospital.

“This young police officer, who is an example of what every cop should be, was killed by a man who decided to smoke some dope, drink for four hours and get behind the wheel of a car,” Manger said at a ceremony honoring the officer outside the 4th District Police Station in Wheaton Thursday afternoon.

Manger’s statements come as police await the results of a blood test administered to 47-year-old Olney resident Luis Gustavo Reluzco, who police identified as the driver of the vehicle that struck Leotta. Manger said Reluzco had been arrested twice before for drunken driving.

Leotta was working as a member of the Holiday Alcohol Task Force, which was looking for drivers under the influence during the holiday season.

“I can tell you that the fact that Noah was trying to prevent that crime—that ended up killing him—I hope that shines a light on this case and shines a light on the fact that the state of Maryland has some of the weakest penalties for drunk drivers,” Manger said. “In fact, as we look ahead to the prosecution of this case, I can tell you, that whenever it’s done, there’s little chance of real justice being done. Because until the state of Maryland starts taking these crimes, and I’m talking about the crime of a drunk driver behind the wheel of a car who’s killing someone, until they take this crime seriously there is no justice for families, there is no justice for victims.”

Manger said Leotta is the thirty-sixth person killed in a crash-related death in the county this year. He said in one-third of those cases, the drivers were under the influence of alcohol.

"Everyone of those victims left a devastated family and a tragic story," Manger said.

John McCarthy, state’s attorney for Montgomery County, issued a statement Thursday afternoon offering his condolences to Leotta’s family and addressing Manger’s statements.

“I understand Chief Manger’s frustration with repeat drunk driving offenders who are not adequately punished under Maryland law,” McCarthy said. “While I understand alcoholism is a disease and treatment should be afforded those who suffer it, we must not allow the privilege of driving on our streets to be given to those who might harm or even kill others after consuming alcohol or taking illegal drugs. Let us take note of other states whose laws are much stricter on repeat drunk drivers than ours to prevent future tragedies such as this one.”

McCarthy added that he has assigned two of the county’s most senior prosecutors to the case. He said in the statement it’s “premature” to discuss outcomes of the ongoing investigation.

“We await accident reconstruction reports, blood toxicology reports and a final police report to be screened by police and prosecutors, then we will act accordingly at that time,” McCarthy said.

Attempts to contact Reluzco were unsuccessful.

Maryland law enables prosecutors to pursue a range of penalties in drunken driving cases when a death results, including vehicular manslaughter, which includes a penalty of up to 10 years in prison, or lesser charges such as driving under the influence with death resulting, which has a maximum penalty of up to five years.

Former Maryland Del. Luiz Simmons, a Rockville defense attorney, who worked on drunken driving laws as a member of the judiciary committee for 12 years, said the vehicular manslaughter charge is difficult for prosecutors prove. It requires prosecutors to prove a driver had a “wanton or reckless disregard for human life.”

“It’s a tough standard,” Simmons said. “If the driver was drinking, if he was drugging, if he was going at an excessive speed or failed to keep a lookout, all of those factors would go into if there was a wanton disregard for life.”

He also said that he believes the DUI with death resulting statute, which has a lesser standard of proof—negligence—may need to be revisited by the General Assembly to add tougher penalties.

“I do feel there are areas where the legislature can and should do more and this may be an impetus or catalyst, at the very least, to reexamine vehicular homicide while under the influence,” Simmons said.

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