Suit over fees dismissed by appeals court Action had claimed 24 sheriffs could not collect traffic money

Decision called a relief

State law requires administrative steps in recovery, judges say

December 10, 1997|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The state's top court dismissed a lawsuit yesterday that claimed sheriffs across Maryland owed thousands of dollars in illegally collected service fees charged to people who lost traffic cases in circuit courts.

The lawsuit, filed last year in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, sought $1 million in refunds for motorists who paid the fees over three years, though neither the sheriffs nor the state know how much is involved.

Anne Arundel County Sheriff George F. Johnson IV said the ruling was a relief because it precludes what would have been an administrative nightmare.

"We would be forever trying to figure out who is supposed to get what," he said.

Fees for serving a subpoena are $30 everywhere except Cecil County, where they are $35. The losing side pays, so only traffic defendants who lost cases would have been assessed the fees.

Neither side was taken aback by the Court of Appeals' six-page decision, which said the Anne Arundel judge should not have decided the merits of the case -- he ruled in favor of the state.

Instead, Judge Eugene M. Lerner should have dismissed the case because state law says a person can try to recover mistakenly paid fees through an administrative procedure, but not through a lawsuit, the court said.

Alan H. Legum, one of three attorneys for a Glen Burnie man who brought the lawsuit, said the judges raised that issue themselves in questioning attorneys during oral arguments in October.

"They kept asking the question, 'Where is the basis for this lawsuit anyway?' If you don't have one, you can't get to court," said Assistant Attorney General Julia M. Freit, who argued the case for 24 sheriffs statewide.

The lawsuit, filed by Rudolph A. Bowman as a class action but never certified by the court as one, took aim at a glitch in the law.

In 1992, revisions to transportation law mistakenly omitted a phrase referring to sheriffs' fees for serving legal papers.

The sentence was supposed to say that sheriffs could not collect fees for serving legal papers for a traffic case that were higher than specified in another law. But the last part was mistakenly dropped, leaving the sentence to say only that sheriffs could not collect fees for serving documents in connection with traffic cases.

The General Assembly, alerted to the gaffe by the lawsuit, put the phrase back in during the last session.

After losing in Circuit Court, Bowman appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, the state's intermediate appellate court, but the top court pulled the case away.

Because the Court of Appeals did not get as far as looking into the substantive issues, it did not address the thorny question of what happens when there is a basic error in a law, whether the law should be applied as intended or as it exists with the mistake.

An Anne Arundel County Circuit Court jury convicted Bowman of driving while intoxicated and two related charges on June 26, 1996, according to court records. He was sentenced to two weekends in jail and 18 months probation.

But he was ordered to pay $60 for the sheriff to serve subpoenas.

"Mr. Bowman believed he paid something he didn't have to pay," Legum said.

Legum said he did not know if he would ask the court to reconsider its ruling.

Pub Date: 12/10/97

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