2016 | Politics

Murk and Li Families Press for Passage of Bill That Could Put Parents Behind Bars for Hosting Underage Drinking Parties

Named after two teen victims of a 2015 North Potomac collision, the bill received a favorable report from the state Senate's Judiciary Committee

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Calvin Li and Alex Murk

Paul Li was out of the country when he learned his 18-year-old son had died.

Before Li left on the trip in June 2015, his son, Calvin, came to his room and told Li not to worry about him, the elder Li told a House of Delegates committee during a hearing Wednesday in Annapolis. Calvin Li, a graduate of Wootton High School in Rockville, was preparing to start college at the University of Maryland.

“He said, ‘I will work hard and I will be successful and you will be proud of me. Just go on your trip. You’ll enjoy it and see you soon,’” Paul Li said. “When I returned, he was not here. I did not see his big smile. I did not get to hug him. Instead I saw him in the morgue, eyes closed, hands cold. As you can imagine, my heart was shattered into pieces. I really wish it were me lying there, so he could walk.”

Li was at the House Judiciary Committee hearing in Annapolis to urge the delegates to support “Alex and Calvin’s Law,” a bill that would add the possibility of jail time for parents or other adults charged with providing alcohol to underage drinkers inside their home.

Li was joined by the family of Alex Murk, the other 18-year-old Wootton High School graduate who was killed in the deadly single-vehicle collision in North Potomac on the night of June 25, 2015.

Montgomery County police said the driver, Sam Ellis, 19, had been drinking at a party at the North Potomac home of Kenneth Saltzman before the crash. Police said Ellis lost control of his vehicle and it struck two trees before coming to rest on its roof. Ellis, who was seriously injured, and another teen survived. Li and Murk did not.

The police report noted that Saltzman joked with one partygoer who brought two 30-packs of beer into his home to drink at the party.

For David Murk, that detail represented a breach of community trust. Murk said that his son Alex told him he was going to the Saltzmans’ house the night he was killed and also said a parent would be present at the home.

“The first thing out of my mouth was, ‘Is a parent going to be there?’” Murk said Wednesday at the hearing. “He said yes. That gave me comfort knowing another parent was going to be home. Two-and-a-half-hours later…my son lay dead on the side of the road in the wake of a horrendous motor vehicle accident.

“I thought the Saltzmans would keep our son safe in their home for the evening,” Murk added. “We could not have been more wrong in that assumption.”

Saltzman later pleaded guilty to two counts of furnishing alcohol to a minor and received the maximum fine in both cases—$2,500—for a total payment of $5,000. The penalty was the maximum that could have been meted out under Maryland law for a first-time offender. A request for comment sent to Saltzman’s email address did not immediately receive a response Thursday.

Alex and Calvin’s Law, if passed, would strengthen the penalties for furnishing alcohol to a minor to include a jail sentence lasting up to a year for a first offense as well as a $5,000 fine. A second offense could result into up to two years in jail and a fine up to $7,500. The bill would not apply to workers at bars, restaurants or liquor stores. It also does not apply to immediate family members who provide alcohol to younger family members.

The parents who testified Wednesday, including friends of the Murk and Li families as well as several other Wootton parents, said jail time would provide the deterrent that the existing fines do not.

 “No child is safe under these circumstances,” Nancy Dankos said.

Dankos said her son, Steven, died in a 2009 car crash in Howard County after he left an underage drinking party where a parent was present.

“Small fines do not affect this population,” Dankos said.

Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo, sponsor of the House bill, said police and prosecutors are having difficulty convincing parents that it is dangerous to host underage drinkers.

“There’s a situation where you have a lot of parents where for some reason they think they’re well prepared to allow kids to drink,” Fraser-Hidalgo said.

Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger, who is taking an aggressive stance on several alcohol-related issues during this year’s General Assembly session, testified that underage drinking parties in the county are increasing in frequency.

He noted the case involving the deaths of Alex Murk and Calvin Li received a significant amount of media attention. The case may have had more impact if the media had been able to report that the parent who hosted the party received jail time, Manger said.

“The fact of the matter is this is not a safe way to allow kids to have a party,” Manger said.

In an unusual move, the Senate Judiciary Committee gave its version of the bill a favorable report Wednesday, leaving only the House left to act, according to Fraser-Hidalgo.

“That was very, very good news,” Fraser-Hidalgo said. He added that he’s fairly confident the bill will also be supported by the House Judiciary Committee, whose vice chairman is Del. Kathleen Dumais (D-Germantown), who is co-sponsoring the bill.

He added that the legislation isn’t designed to put parents behind bars, but instead to act as a strong deterrent to parents who might think it’s OK to host an underage drinking party at their home.

“We need to make a cultural change,” Fraser-Hidalgo said.