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Two years later, Noah Leotta’s legacy continues to grow –

by Terri Hogan
Senior Staff Writer
Rich Leotta and Marcia Goldman are members of a club that no parent wants to join.
Instead of preparing for the holidays, they are remembering the two-year anniversary of their son’s death.
Montgomery County Police Officer Noah Leotta, 24 was making a traffic stop on Rockville Pike while working on the Holiday Alcohol Task Force on Dec. 3, 2015, when he was struck by a car driven by an Olney man who had a blood alcohol content of .22, nearly three times the legal limit of .08.
Noah Leotta died a week later.
To mark the sad occasion, a large group of Noah’s friends, family and members of the police department planned to gather at the cemetery, followed by dinner at one of his favorite Olney restaurants. A wreath was laid in his memory and blue ribbons adorned the trees that line his parents’ street in Olney.
Rich Leotta describes Noah as a “frightful child,” but also caring, sensitive and understanding. He was an average student, who struggled through school.
When Noah first told his parents he wanted to be a police officer, Noah’s mother was horrified, his father recalled.
“We recognized the dangers, but we knew we had to let Noah live his life,” Rich Leotta said. “Noah excelled at the [police] academy, and my wife says that her proudest moment was when he graduated.”
Because he developed a passion for preventing drunk driving, he had volunteered to serve on the Holiday Alcohol Task Force.
About a week before he died, Noah voiced his frustration at laws being too weak and judges being too lenient, but reiterated how much he loved being a police officer, his father said.
As Noah left for work on Dec. 3, 2015, Rich Leotta told his son, “Have a good evening.”

Making a difference

Noah’s Law took effect Oct. 1, 2016.
Also known as The Drunk Driving Reduction Act of 2016, the law requires a person convicted of certain alcohol-related driving offenses to participate in the Ignition Interlock System Program.
The driver must blow into a mouthpiece connected to the interlock device, allowing the device to measure the driver’s breath alcohol content. If the device registers a breath alcohol content greater than .025, it will not allow the vehicle to start.
Drivers are required to participate in Maryland’s Ignition Interlock Program if convicted of Driving under the influence (DUI), Driving while impaired (DWI) while transporting a minor under the age of 16, Driving while intoxicated with an initial breathalyzer test refusal, and homicide or life-threatening injury by motor vehicle while DUI or DWI.
“This is a law that took seven years to pass,” Rich Leotta said. “It didn’t start with Noah, it started with many families before us. We just carried it across the goal line.”
He credits local legislators for their perseverance and Gov. Larry Hogan for his support.
Rich Leotta said that while the law is making a difference, it is just one piece.
“It’s a good start, but more can be and must be done,” he said.
Because Noah’s Law has only been in effect for just over a year, extensive data is not available to determine its success.
Christine Nizer, administrator of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, said it is a little too early to tell about the impact of the law, but that participation in the interlock program is up about 10 percent.
“It’s clearly doing what Noah’s Law intended,” she said.
Nizer said that during the last fiscal year, interlock devices prevented Maryland drivers with a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher from starting their vehicles 2,000 times.
If not for the interlocks, those are drivers who would have driven impaired.
While the interlock data may be quantitative, the increased awareness brought about by the death of Noah Leotta is not.
“You couldn’t pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV without hearing Noah’s story,” Nizer said. “Frankly, that is what it takes sometime — a personal story. His family had a lot of courage to put his story out there. Numbers are important … but Noah’s story symbolized the fight to stop impaired driving.”
While interlock devices have a proven success rate, Leotta said they are finding that many judges are giving drunk driving offenders “probation before judgement,” or PBJ.
According to the Maryland State Law Library, a PBJ is a conditional avoidance of imposition of sentence after conviction. Failure to satisfy the conditions may cause imposition of sentence after a finding of violation of probation.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” Rich Leotta. “Judges are not doing their job to protect the community. Instead, they are bending over backwards for the criminals.”
He is not suggesting they be sent to jail, but believes that instead of a slap on the wrist, they should be required to use an interlock.
He said if that continues to be the case, then he and other volunteers may begin court monitoring, where they will sit in on trials to observe the judges’ sentences.
The Montgomery County Police Department Alcohol Holiday Task Force, comprised of officers from the Alcohol Initiatives Section and patrol officers from the six police districts, as well as officers from the Gaithersburg Police Department, Maryland National Capital Park Police Department, Takoma Park Police Department, Maryland State Police and the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, devotes its full time and attention to detecting alcohol-related offenses during the holiday season.
This year’s task force began operating Nov. 15 and will continue through Jan. 6.
During the first three weeks of this year’s enforcement, the county police department reports that task force officers arrested 86 people for driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.
This number includes arrests by task force officers only, not arrests made by other officers on routine patrol.
The task force includes sobriety checkpoints, responding to calls for underage drinking parties, compliance checks of businesses, and enforcement of traffic laws in areas known for a high number of alcohol-related collisions.

Finding forgiveness

For the past 10 years or so, a quote by Nelson Mandela has hung on the Leotta family’s refrigerator: “Forgiveness liberates the soul. That’s why it is such a powerful weapon.”
Rich Leotta said he posted it as a reminder for his children, Noah and Shana. He thinks the message resonated with each of them.
Someone left a letter on Noah’s grave shortly after he died. Noah had arrested that person, but assured him that he could correct his ways and not to give up.
The person who left the letter thanked Noah for changing his life.
“Noah understood that those he stopped weren’t bad people and that he couldn’t fix everybody,” Rich Leotta said. “But he could forgive them and knew that initial contact could help change someone’s life.”
Rich said he is often asked if he can forgive Luis Reluzco, the Olney man who pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter in Noah’s death and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
“Hate takes a lot of energy,” he said. “I want to see him come out a changed person. If I see that, then I could forgive him.”

A new normal

Rich Leotta retired from his job two years before Noah’s death and Marcia retired just a few weeks before.
“I remember having a conversation with my wife about where we were going with our retirement,” Rich said. “We were thinking we were so blessed — we were young enough and our kids were moving forward and successful. We felt we had reached a milestone in our parenting. A month later, we were put into this nightmare.”
Leotta now spends a lot of his time speaking publicly about drunk driving, trying to spare others the heartache his family has endured.
He admitted that while he is strong on the outside, he is broken on the inside. But he continues on because he knows Noah would want him to get his message out.
“I can’t change what happened to Noah, but may be able to change things for others,” he said. “I think Noah gives me the strength to do this.”
He said that the support from friends, family, the community, the media and the police department have helped to sustain him and his family.
Among the tangible reminders of Noah, Rich now has Thorin, Noah’s beloved puggle that his son named after a character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” and Noah’s car. He often drives the car while listening to Noah’s radio stations — not the kind of music he would typically listen to.
“It’s my moment with him,” Rich said. “It’s tough, but it is just the little things like that that keep you going.”
Noah’s legacy lives on in many ways, including Noah’s Law, a foundation, a scholarship, plaques and dedications.
It also lives on in two children who were recipients of his organ donation.

Moving forward

The family founded the Officer Noah Aaron Leotta Foundation with the mission of eliminating driving while intoxicated with alcohol and other substances, supporting victims of those crimes, preventing underage drinking and promoting awareness of the problems of driving while intoxicated, and promoting safety and educational goals.
Rich Leotta said they are applying for grant money and working with state, county and local leaders to carry out the mission.
“We hope to use Montgomery County as a model, then expand throughout the state,” he said.
Rich said he is not “anti-alcohol,” but instead preaches personal responsibility.
“There are 88,000 deaths from opioid drugs a year, but alcohol is still the number-one drug problem in this country, and it’s been around a whole lot longer,” he said. “Even with all the things like Uber, Lyft and interlocks, drunk driving numbers are increasing. That is unconscionable.”
He thinks change will eventually come in the form of technology.
“I think it will be driven by insurance companies, but I am OK with that,” he said.
In the meantime, he will continue lobbying against drunk driving in the name of Noah.
“Just plan ahead for a safe and sober ride home,” Rich Leotta said. “Doing that is the greatest way to honor Noah.”

To learn more, go to http://www.officernoahaleottafoundation.org.

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