Wheels of justice with spokes

Dan Rodricks Goucher College intern Margot Kaufman contributed to this column.

December 07, 1990|By Dan Rodricks

Seeking further insight into the dynamics of the Maryland judicial system, we ventured yesterday morning to the old Sears store on North Avenue.

This might seem odd to persons unaware of the department store's conversion to a complex housing some of Baltimore's District Courts. It's a large, ugly, nearly windowless building -- I call it "stacked chest-freezer architecture" -- that looms like a gray monolith on the city's hazy eastern horizon. It is located in an interesting neighborhood. Nearby are the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, the William C. March funeral establishment and the Veterans Warehouse, an emporium of previously used clothing that I have heard referred to as "Saks North Avenue."

By 9:15, the parking lot was full and the morning docket was being presented in each of a handful of courtrooms. The first door on the right leads to Central District Court. The presiding judge was Theodore Oshrine. The courtroom was full.

One of the first cases called was guaranteed to get things off to a rousing start. The defendant was a blond transvestite accused of solicitation on The Block. "Marilyn Mansfield," someone called out the name. Marilyn's stunning name, fabulous blond hair and striking appearance -- tight jeans, sweater top and exposed waist -- jolted everyone awake and ensured that there would be no snoring during the morning docket.

We next heard the case of a Mr. Hutchins, accused of riding his bicycle on a crowded sidewalk and, in so doing, committing "reckless endangerment."

About a month ago, on a weekday at rush hour, Mr. Hutchins was observed riding his bicycle in the 400 block of E. Baltimore St. by Officer Jim Holford, a tall, striking blond from the Central District. Officer Holford instructed him to ride in the street. Mr. Hutchins heard the instruction but continued for another 50 feet on the sidewalk. At one point, he bumped into a pedestrian and almost knocked him over. Officer Holford charged Mr. Hutchins with "reckless endangerment."

Mr. Hutchins came to court without an attorney.

"You didn't think this was important enough to take a couple of minutes of your time and contact an lawyer?" Judge Oshrine asked.

Mr. Hutchins mumbled a response and the case proceeded. Officer Holford testified. Mr. Hutchins questioned him. Asked if he agreed that it would have been too dangerous for Mr. Hutchins to ride his bicycle in the traffic of Baltimore Street, Officer Holford said, "I wouldn't do it." In fact, said the officer, he wouldn't ride a bicycle "anywhere in the Western Hemisphere."

The verdict was not guilty. John-John Kennedy agonizes over the New York bar exam while, in Baltimore, our Mr. Hutchins racks up an acquittal without ever opening a law book.

The next case was that of Mr. William Little, 38 years old and experienced in criminal matters. He knows -- and we came to learn -- that a good attendance record can serve a defendant in regard to bail.

"No FTAs so they recog him," is how Officer Paul Boone explained it. Translation: Mr. William Little has never failed to appear for trial so judges tend to release him on personal recognizance. The trouble is, Mr. Little keeps getting arrested.

Mr. Little has a habit of walking the streets of Baltimore, looking into cars, smashing their windows and removing their contents. He also has a habit of panicking -- and dropping what he's doing -- at the first sight of trouble.

One day, Mr. Little smashed the window of a Honda Accord, took a compact-disc player and started running. A Central District officer spotted Mr. Little and gave chase. Mr. Little dropped the CD player. The CD player broke. Mr. Little was apprehended, jailed, then released on his own recognizance.

Another time, Mr. Little smashed the window of a van owned by a Mr. Bloom. Mr. Little took Mr. Bloom's portable phone and started running. Two Central District officers spotted Mr. Little and gave chase. Mr. Little dropped the portable phone. The phone broke. Mr. Little was apprehended, jailed, then brought to court. Judge Oshrine gave him nine months in jail.

Mr. Bloom politely requested $300 restitution for his damaged portable phone. When told that restitution could be ordered but that it's delivery was unlikely, Mr. Bloom said, "Well then, your honor, in the future, I'd appreciate it if the defendant would place things on the ground instead of dropping them!"

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