Fast-talking drivers can budge the judge

December 26, 1993|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Staff Writer

"I had never driven that kind of car before and I didn't know it had such power."

"I was having chest pains and I was trying to get to a hospital."

"I couldn't understand why I was stopped."

Such are the stories heard each day in Glen Burnie Traffic Court, where motorists arrive ready to offer up their sad, colorful and creative explanations about why they were driving too fast that day, coasted through that stop sign or caught that light just as it turned red.

The sessions can be just as entertaining as anything on television: Motorists stand before a judge, swear to tell the truth -- and then begin their tales.

Robert S. Koelsch, of Upper Marlboro, told District Court Judge James W. Dryden last week that he was clocked at 70 mph in a 55 mph zone last August because he was driving a Range Rover for the first time and didn't realize it "had such power."

"I normally never would've gone that fast," Mr. Koelsch said.

Going too slow

Phyllis Scott of Laurel said she was preoccupied with her health when she was stopped last August for speeding near her home.

"I was having chest pains and I was trying to get to a hospital," she said.

Rachel D. Barrett of Pasadena inspired groans from the courtroom audience when she admitted she was ticketed June 24 for going below the posted 40 mph speed limit along Route 177.

Clocked at 32 mph, she wondered why cars were backing up behind her, she said.

"I couldn't understand why I was stopped," she said.

Catherine Chapman of Annapolis explained that she was in a hurry to get home to her children, whom she had left with her elderly parents while she was visiting friends May 25. She was "definitely" not going 100 mph when she was stopped at about midnight on Ritchie Highway at College Parkway.

"I would say it was more in the 60s," she said.

And no way was Keith L. Craft, an Army medical corpsman based at Walter Reed Army Hospital, going 90 mph when he was stopped along Interstate 97 near Benfield Boulevard at about 1 a.m. Sept. 26.

"I was watching my speedometer and I never saw it go above 70," he said.

Cases lead to arguments over who hit whom, whether the motorist-turned-defendant should have been stopped by the police at all and if that no-parking sign was really there when the driver parked next to it.

Frank Boyle, a 68-year-old electrical engineer, was in court because the police had given him a $50 ticket for parking in a space reserved for vehicles driven by the handicapped.

Judge Dryden found Mr. Boyle not guilty after he displayed his handicapped parking tag.

Mr. Boyle said he had forgotten to put it on his car's visor the day he was ticketed a few months ago at a Glen Burnie shopping center.

"I came here looking for some compassion, I guess I got it," Mr. Boyle later said. "He's a good judge."

Most suspected speeders were dealt out fines of about $60 and granted probation before judgment, meaning that the conviction will be stricken from the court record and not affect their car insurance rates.

The general rule seemed to be the higher the speed, the higher the fines. Speeds in excess of 70 mph earned the drivers Motor Vehicle Administration points and guilty convictions, which can boost car insurance rates.

Either way, justice is swift and sure.

One Wednesday earlier this month, Judge Dryden managed to zip through 60 cases in about two hours, often by stopping story-tellers in midsentence to politely let them know he had heard enough.

"You can stop talking now, ma'am, I'm going to find you not guilty," he told one elderly defendant charged with speeding.

'Some . . . are so wonderful'

The judge later said he has heard his share of stories about broken speedometers, suspected heart attacks at the wheel and cars more powerful than the driver suspected.

"I've often thought that I should write some of these stories down, some of them are so wonderful," he said.

He said that once defendants appear and are sworn in, he tends to believe what they say.

"If people take the time to come to court and get up in front of a roomful of people, it's hard to believe they're making it up," he said.

But he acknowledges that on any given day, he's likely to hear a tall tale or two.

"It's always hard to tell what's true and what's not," he said.

Judge Dryden said many motorists appear before him worried about going to jail, a penalty reserved for the most serious driving violations, such as drunken driving. The maximum penalty for speeders is a $500 fine.

His favorite story involved a defendant who had such a concern, and on his day in court had apparently confused the words "incarcerated" and "incinerated."

"He got up and said he really didn't want to be incinerated," Judge Dryden said. "I said, 'Don't worry, sir, we wouldn't do that to you here.' "

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