Actions were not baby-selling, Special Appeals Court rules

May 31, 1991|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,Sun Staff Correspondent

ANNAPOLIS -- For $4,000, Allen F. Runkles had arranged to have his girlfriend turn over custody of her 6-year-old son to the boy's paternal grandfather in August 1989.

Yesterday, the Court of Special Appeals decided that while Mr. Runkles may have engaged in "influence-peddling," it wasn't baby-selling -- at least not under Maryland law.

The 1989 law, which was enacted after public outrage over an Anne Arundel County incident, forbids the sale, barter or trade of a child, or any offers to do so. But because "relinquishing custody does not constitute a sale, barter or trade," a divided three-judge panel held yesterday, Mr. Runkles' conviction must be overturned.

"What? That doesn't sound sensible to me," exploded Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore, one of the sponsors of the 1989 legislative measure, when informed of the ruling. "The intent of the law was clearly to not let people exchange children for money. That's judicial hairsplitting. We'll have to go back to the drawing boards."

But George E. Burns Jr., the lawyer who had argued Mr. Runkles' case before the court, disagreed. His client "never had custody to begin with," Mr. Burns said. "He had nothing to sell."

Mr. Runkles had been living with his girlfriend, JoAnn Bauerlein, on Robert's Mill Road in Taneytown in August 1989 when he contacted Warren Seymour, the paternal grandfather of Ms. Bauerlein's older son, and offered to broker the custody arrangement for $4,000, court documents show. Two days later, Mr. Seymour showed up with a custody order for Ms. Bauerlein to sign and the money. Also, unbeknown to Mr. Runkles, several undercover police officers had staked out the house to watch the transaction.

After the order was signed and the money changed hands, Mr. Runkles was arrested on baby-selling charges. He was convicted by Carroll County Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. and sentenced in May 1990 to five years' probation.

But yesterday Appeals Judges Theodore G. Bloom and Arrie W. Davis agreed with defense arguments that the law did not mention "persuasion or counseling," nor did it extend to transfer of custody.

If it did, any divorcing parent who agreed to give up custody in exchange for "any other thing of value," such as support payments, visitation rights or property, could be held criminally liable, the judges reasoned.

Dissenting Judge Charles E. Moylan argued that transferring "total and open-ended custody in a child in exchange for cash" violated the spirit and the letter of the law as much as a paid adoption agreement.

In the earlier Anne Arundel case, a judge dismissed baby-selling charges against a couple who allegedly sold their 2-month-old son to undercover detectives for $3,500 and 3.5 ounces of cocaine.

Circuit Judge Bruce C. Williams concluded that the law then in effect did not prohibit parents from selling their children, but was aimed at agencies and lawyers who were not permitted to profit from arranging adoptions.

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