In court appearances, trend is come-as-you-are

March 20, 1995|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,Sun Staff Writer

Not long ago, people dressed for court the way they dressed for church. Now they dress for court the way they dress for a ballgame.

Throughout Baltimore County's District Courts, defendants in dingy, torn jeans, T-shirts, baseball caps, tattered sweat pants and sunglasses wait for judges to decide their guilt or innocence. With even warmer weather on the way, tank tops, cutoff shorts and flip-flops will be much in evidence.

Many judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors call the new mode of dress outrageous but no longer surprising. They say it's symptomatic of the degeneration of courtroom etiquette during the past five years.

They also say that not much can be done to change it. Chief District Judge Robert F. Sweeney has no dress code in his court and encourages judges to tolerate diversity in attire. Still, many jurists lament the long-gone, unwritten rule that you wear to court what you wear to church.

Consider the defendant in a September drunken-driving case who asked a Towson judge for leniency -- standing before the bench in a Budweiser T-shirt and Jack Daniels belt buckle. Or the case of the man who pleaded not guilty to a drug-possession charge before a Dundalk judge in December. On his denim jacket was a marijuana plant emblem.

Both were found guilty.

Columbia graphic artist Aaron Lynch wore to Essex District Court what he wore to a beer bash the night before -- gray sweat pants and a purple shirt he had slept in the previous night.

"I don't see why I should dress up for a judge," said Mr. Lynch, who was found guilty of bad check and battery charges in November. "Who cares what I look like?"

Judges do, defense attorneys say. Although no one keeps statistics on attire and length of sentence, veteran lawyers believe that a client's dress can affect the severity of punishment.

Baltimore defense attorney Roland Walker tells his clients that, no matter what the charge, they should come to court dressed in clothes fit for church.

"It starts off with a favorable impression," said Mr. Walker, who has been practicing for 42 years. "Judges and juries form an impression in the first two minutes of contact."

Judges demur. "Does it have an effect on me? I hope it doesn't," said District Judge Charles E. Foos III, But he added, "I'm disappointed that people don't show respect."

Ocean City attire

Judge Sweeney said courtroom dress standards differ throughout the state. For example, he said it's perfectly acceptable for people in Ocean City to come to court in beach attire, as long as the clothing isn't indecent.

"I have refused to adopt a dress code," he said. "We are the people's court. I don't share the view that it's a problem."

Judge Foos said the come-as-you-are trend is a sign that society's values are eroding. Howard L. Cardin, a former Baltimore prosecutor and now a defense attorney, agrees. But he says it's the court's fault.

"It has been tolerated for so long that perhaps it has encouraged it," Mr. Cardin said.

Judge Foos recalled "a time when no one would come in with a pair of shorts, tank top or muddy boots," and said judges once sent people home if they didn't present a neat appearance. "Court is supposed to be a dignified institution," he said.

Not for Erin James. When she arrived at Dundalk District Court to plead not guilty to prostitution charges, her hair was in pink-and-green curlers and she wore jeans and a faded pajama top.

"My public defender told me to come in here looking as nice as I could, but I did this on purpose," Ms. James said, calling District Court "a joke."

"I don't look any worse than anyone else in here," she said.

Though he said he is not bothered by how people dress in court, District Judge A. Gordon Boone Jr. said people might dress better if their courthouse surroundings were more dignified.

Courts 'are dumps'

"Good facilities breed that kind of respect," Judge Boone said. The courts in "Dundalk and Owings Mills are dumps," he said.

The courthouses are in old buildings. One bench in Dundalk Courtroom No. 2 has been cordoned off for months with yellow "Do Not Cross" police tape because of huge cracks in the seat. Owings Mills has no waiting area outside the courtroom, forcing people to loiter outdoors or crowd around doors of the building's business tenants.

On Thursday, Timothy Holloway showed up in Essex District Court in a blue, white and black Nike sweat suit and matching Nike basketball shoes because no one said he shouldn't.

Defense attorney Walker speculated that people simply aren't being told that their appearance matters to a judge.

"I think that they are not giving a thought about how they look. Some lawyers don't point out the importance of it," Mr. Walker said.

Stanley Baldwin said he took the dress-to-impress tactic to heart when he appeared in Dundalk on Wednesday on domestic battery charges.

"I wanted to look nice for the judge and myself," Mr. Baldwin said.

But as soon as Judge Foos postponed his case, Mr. Baldwin turned away from the bench and took off his tie before he was out of the courtroom. By the time he was in the outside waiting room, his white shirt was off, revealing a cut-off T-shirt that read, "Normal Is Boring."

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