Double jeopardy traffic case spurs bid to change law

August 31, 1991|By Michael J. Clark | Michael J. Clark,Howard County Bureau of The Sun

A Baltimore County delegate wants to change the state motor vehicle law to prevent motorists from avoiding prosecution for more serious traffic offenses by paying fines for lesser, related offenses.

Delegate Leon Albin, D-Baltimore County, said this week that he plans to pre-file legislation to get around the double jeopardy issue that on Wednesday prompted a Howard County Circuit Court judge to dismiss an auto manslaughter charge in the death of a young woman because the driver had paid a $45 fine for reckless driving in the same accident.

"I was disturbed to learn about the court's ruling, because the motorist caused the death of someone," Mr. Albin said. "It is horrible the situation happened."

He said his bill would seek to amend the law to make traffic offenses that are not punishable by prison sentences civil violations rather than misdemeanors, or to require that people facing multiple charges in an accident be tried on the most serious charge first.

Gary E. Bair, chief of the Maryland attorney general's criminal appeals division, said either approach "would help get around the problem."

He said double jeopardy involves criminal charges, so amending the law to make less serious traffic offenses civil rather than criminal would avoid the problem.

Mr. Bair said two cases involving the same issue will be argued before the Court of Appeals this fall.

Howard County police Maj. Mark L. Paterni said Mr. Albin's legislation "certainly is worth consideration." However, he said, "I want to see what we would be giving up in the area of searches of autos" by making some criminal traffic charges civil.

Even without legislation, he said, "we can modify procedures so we don't charge lesser traffic offenses in such cases and coordinate our efforts with the state's attorney's office to charge only the most serious offenses."

In Wednesday's decision, a Howard Circuit Court judge dismissed an auto manslaughter charge against Garrick Wesley, 24, of the 600 block of Allendale Street, Baltimore, because he already had been fined for reckless driving.

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