After two years, theft victim gets justice

This Just In...

July 26, 1999|By DAN RODRICKS

Ultimately, and with a little help from a certain former governor, Mike Grear got what he was after -- $773 in court-ordered restitution for car damage -- so it's probably difficult to see any degree of selflessness or civic-mindedness in his dogged pursuit of that money.

But here's my point: Grear stayed on the case for two frustrating years, long after most crime victims would have given up, and he exacted a little piece of justice from a car thief who might otherwise have walked away laughing.

That counts for something.

Grear, who lives in Howard County, isn't looking for a good citizenship medal. But I think the guy deserves an approving nod from those of us who would be more easily broken by the long, slow grind of the courts.

He hung in there. He got his money. He made a point.

The fun started June 29, 1997. A thief broke into Grear's car while it was parked in front of his house in Columbia and drove off with it. Three days later, in Baltimore, police stopped a car for speeding. The driver tried to run away, but police grabbed him. The car turned out to be Grear's.

"The car was severely damaged," says Grear, who recovered it from the city's impoundment lot. "Left door molding ripped out, ignition switch broken, air bag tampered with, left turn signal broken, air conditioner broken, battery dead, dome light busted out."

Repairs and towing fees came to $773. "Money I could have spent on my children," Grear says.

Soon after his car was recovered, Grear got a summons to appear in District Court in Baltimore. He filled out an "auto theft restitution form" and attached receipts for the towing and repairs.

Grear attended every hearing and kept notes on the case. Here's his chronology:

Aug. 8, 1997 -- First court hearing. The 27-year-old defendant appears without a lawyer, says he didn't have time to secure one. Judge C. Yvonne Holt-Stone grants continuance. Arresting officer does not appear. Grear wastes six hours.

Nov. 11, 1997 -- Second hearing, District Court. Defendant still doesn't have a lawyer. Public defender takes case. Judge gives defendant probation before judgment -- that means no jail time -- and orders him to pay Grear $773. (Court records indicate that restitution is to be paid through the Division of Parole and Probation at $50 a month.)

June 1998 -- Grear writes a letter informing the judge that he has received no restitution in the eight months since it was ordered.

July 15, 1998 -- Third court hearing. Defendant claims to have made $300 restitution payment. Probation agent claims she didn't mail it to Grear because she didn't have his address.

Aug. 27, 1998 -- Grear gets a check for $300. Defendant still owes $473.

Sept. 30, 1998 -- Defendant claims in court to have made two additional payments to Grear by mail. Probation agent says no such payments received. Judge warns defendant he'll be arrested if restitution is not paid by next hearing date.

Dec. 8, 1998 -- Defendant does not appear. Judge issues bench warrant for his arrest. Notes Grear: "I am informed by the judge that if and when [the defendant] is arrested and if he posts bail, the bail money will be transferred to me. Bail is set at $473, the remaining restitution due."

Feb. 17 -- Defendant arrested in Howard County. His girlfriend posts bail.

March 25 -- Defendant arrives late for sixth hearing in the case. Judge scolds him. Defendant's girlfriend signs over $473 in bail money to the District Court. Grear told he'll have a check in four to six weeks. He gives his address to the court clerk.

By May, Grear still hasn't received a check. He calls a telephone number he's given for the District Court clerk's office. The person answering at that number tells him to call another number. No one answers at the other number.

May 22 -- Grear writes a letter to several politicians, including state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer. "In this day and age of murders, rapes, shootings, drugs, etc., I suppose grand theft auto is considered just small potatoes. Still...after investing all these hours driving to and from all these court hearings to assist the state's attorney's office in prosecuting this case, the city and state has my restitution money but won't send it to me."

Early June -- Schaefer calls Grear's house and speaks to his wife. "Can I help you?" Mary Grear asks the former governor. "No," says Schaefer, "but I think I can help you."

June 20 -- Grear receives a check from the District Court for $473.

June 22 -- Grear writes a thank-you note to Schaefer for freeing up the final restitution check.

"Having seen what I saw in court, the way cases are handled, I knew that, if I didn't keep showing up for these hearings, the case would have been [dropped], no jail time and no restitution," says Grear. "So, OK, I guess I decided to be a good citizen and keep showing up."

The system is swamped and bound in too much red tape. (Back in March, why didn't the judge order the car thief's girlfriend to write a check to Grear instead of to District Court?)

What Grear went through isn't all that unusual. I've been to District Court a few hundred times, and I've seen judges handle hundreds of cases efficiently and fairly. But I've also seen countless witnesses and victims shake their heads at cases postponed and cases dismissed.

It's in the street-level court where average citizens have their first and most impressionable experiences with the court system. Sometimes they see that smooth, fast and fair machine. Too often they see what Mike Grear saw: a system that requires too large a commitment of time and effort for too small an amount of justice and satisfaction.

Pub Date: 07/26/99

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