Law nullified, letting Price keep profits Judge rules right of free speech was violated ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY

August 11, 1993|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Staff Writer

An Anne Arundel Circuit Court judge ruled yesterday that Maryland's "Son of Sam" law is unconstitutional and that Ronald W. Price may keep profits from any book or movie deal he makes.

In the first challenge to the law, Anne Arundel Judge Eugene M. Lerner ruled that it violates Mr. Price's First Amendment free speech rights. The provision is too similar to a New York statute ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991, Judge Lerner said.

"We certainly do not mean to suggest in our analysis that we somehow reject the notion that 'crime does not pay,' " the judge wrote in a 17-page decision. However, he said, the Maryland law would allow the state to unconstitutionally regulate the "thoughts, feelings, opinions, or emotions" of anyone charged with a crime.

Mr. Price, 49, is charged with child abuse for having sexual relations with three students while he was a teacher at Northeast High School in Pasadena. He has admitted on television talk shows and in newspapers that he had relations with seven RTC students but has pleaded insanity.

His lawyers have said that Mr. Price has a contract with a Hollywood agent to peddle the rights to his life story.

State Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. sought a court order July 26 requiring Mr. Price to surrender the contract under Maryland's law, which was named for New York serial killer David Berkowitz, who referred to himself as "Son of Sam" and prompted a public outcry when he made a book deal.

The New York law was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1991 in an unrelated case. But Mr. Curran argued that the General Assembly changed the Maryland law last year to conform to that decision.

Judge Lerner, however, said Maryland's amended law still curbed free speech and imposed the same type of penalty the high court banned.

Timothy Umbreit, one of Mr. Price's lawyers, called the decision a victory for the First Amendment.

"No matter how you feel about Mr. Price, you have to look at the big picture. There's a larger issue here," he said. "The people's right to free speech has been vindicated."

Mr. Curran immediately appealed the decision to the Court of Special Appeals and said he also would ask the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, to review the decision.

He said Maryland's statute was aimed specifically at defendants such as Mr. Price, who are charged with crimes and then seek to profit from them.

Before Mr. Price faced criminal charges and before his television appearances, no one was interested "in paying him for the rights to a movie about his unremarkable life," Mr. Curran wrote in a memo filed with the judge.

Mr. Curran said the amendments passed by the General Assembly in 1992 were not restricted to speech, but also penalized profits from such activities as crime re-enactments.

The law requires profits stemming from a crime to be turned over to the victims.

Deputy Attorney General Ralph Tyler said Maryland's law is one of dozens of similar statutes enacted by states around the country. But Mr. Curran's appeal is the first to reach an appellate court since the 1991 New York case involving "Wiseguy," a book written by self-described mobster Henry Hill after he entered the federal witness protection program. The book later became the basis for the movie "GoodFellas."

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said in the 8-0 decision that the New York statute would have unconstitutionally penalized the works of Malcolm X, Henry David Thoreau, St. Augustine and Bertrand Russell.

After hearing of yesterday's ruling, constitutional scholars said it might be difficult for anyone to craft a law that passes constitutional muster and regulates the profits from a criminal's book or movie deal.

"If you have a more general law that takes away any profit from any wrongdoing, not just speech, that might work," said Susan Bloch, who teaches constitutional law at the Georgetown University School of Law.

David S. Bogen, an associate dean at the University of Maryland Law School, said the success of a statute would depend on the framers' intent.

"The only way to make it constitutional would be to make it clear that you weren't trying to suppress the story, but only the profits from the story, and that's a difficult thing to do," he said.

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