Judge's order puts dunce cap on Price's lawyer Attorney in sex case punished for 'ignorance of the law'

August 20, 1993|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Staff Writer

A federal judge, annoyed at a Baltimore lawyer's inability to comprehend the law, has thrown the book at him.

Now, Timothy F. Umbreit has 30 days to copy a portion of it -- legibly, and in longhand.

The punishment, handed down Wednesday in a written order by U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin, stemmed from Mr. Umbreit's efforts to keep secret the details of a movie deal signed by former Northeast High School teacher Ronald Walter Price. Mr. Price has admitted to having sex with at least eight of his students.

Mr. Umbreit had argued in his filing that the case belonged in federal court because it involved a constitutional issue.

This month, Judge Smalkin disagreed, saying the case belonged in Anne Arundel Circuit Court because it challenged a state law. He refused to hear Mr. Umbreit's arguments that Maryland's so-called Son of Sam statute, designed to prevent criminals from profiting from their misdeeds, violated his client's First Amendment rights to free speech.

An irritated Judge Smalkin threatened to fine the lawyer $2,500 and demanded an explanation of why Mr. Umbreit had wasted the court's time.

Mr. Umbreit's written response, that he was acting on the advice of a court clerk, clearly did not do the trick. The lawyer has until Sept. 17 to turn in his punishment, along with certification that the penmanship is really his.

"I explained that when we went to file the papers, a clerk suggested that we use the federal removal statute," Mr. Umbreit said.

"The improper filing here resulted as much or more from ignorance of the law as from anything else," the judge wrote in his order. "The proper purpose of a nonmonetary penalty should be to educate, especially in a case like this, where the attorney fails to grasp the issue even after it has been explained to him by the court."

The judge ruled out the idea of sending Mr. Umbreit to class, saying he didn't think a course would fill "the gap in the counsel's knowledge of federal law."

Mr. Umbreit laughed when asked about the order yesterday and said he intends to comply. He had already sent a law clerk to

pick up a copy of the textbook.

"I'm taking it in good humor," he said. "I think it is a very Solomon-like decision. It engenders no ill will and will elicit no appeal from either side. It's very wise."

Though Mr. Umbreit lost that battle, he won another one. Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Eugene M. Lerner ruled that the state law violated Mr. Price's First Amendment rights. Maryland Attorney General Joseph J. Curran Jr. has appealed.

Mr. Price taught at the Pasadena school until he was charged in April with three counts of child sex abuse, for having sex with young women while they were his students.

"I can't recall a judge imposing this kind of sanction," said Edward F. Shea, president of the Maryland Bar Association.

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