Md. can prosecute out-of-state vendor in Internet deal

Appellate ruling hailed as victory for consumers

July 29, 2000|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A Georgia woman can be tried for theft in Maryland in a case involving collectible Barbie dolls because the disgruntled Allegany County buyer sent her check from Maryland, the state's highest court said yesterday.

Criminal law attorneys had their eyes on the case because it involved the Internet, but a unanimous Maryland Court of Appeals said the case turned on buyer Debbie Ann Amyot having mailed the check from Maryland. Amyot accuses the Georgia woman of selling her more than $6,000 in shoddy merchandise after communicating with her online and negotiating by e-mail and telephone.

"It's a good ruling for a customer in Maryland; a consumer has to have protection," said Clifford C. Stoddard, who specializes in white-collar prosecutions for the Anne Arundel County State's Attorney's Office. "We're looking at Point A in Maryland and Point B wherever."

He said that, based on this ruling, prosecutors can try to argue that relaying credit card information over the Internet and telephone from Maryland is no different from sending a check in the mail.

"If they are saying the Postal Service is a common carrier, then the Internet is a common carrier - that would be the argument I would make," Stoddard said.

Dominic R. Iamele, former president of the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, said he didn't see why that logic would not apply to Internet purchases, but noted the narrow nature of the ruling.

He said there are questions of how vigorously prosecutors would pursue allegations of small thefts against out-of-state sellers, and whether claims that goods from other states are not up to snuff would be fodder for civil, not criminal, cases.

Gary E. Bair, chief of criminal appeals in the Maryland attorney general's office, noted that the ruling was narrowly tailored to the Postal Service, and that because it did not speak to Internet fraud allegations, it might not apply to them.

Consumer complaints of online fraud have increased sixfold from 1997 to 1998, according to Internet Fraud Watch, a private consumer group, reflecting increased Internet shopping.

In her opinion, Judge Irma S. Raker wrote, "This case appears to present a cutting-edge issue, because it involves a prosecution for theft by means of a deception across state lines perpetrated partly via the Internet. But in reality, the case turns on principles developed by common-law courts long ago, in connection with business done by mail."

The lower courts said the charge of theft by deception could not be pursued in Maryland because the sale took place in Georgia.

"I can't believe it. I can't tell you how excited I am," Amyot said yesterday, when told of the ruling.

Amyot, a serious collector of the Mattel Corp.'s best-known and enduring doll, was so upset by lower court rulings - which said the case could not be tried in Maryland - that she was prepared to go to Clayton County, Ga., to press charges against Mary Jean Cain in what she said was a deal for $6,140 for 95 mint-condition Barbie dolls.

Amyot received less than 40 Barbie dolls in such condition that an appraiser called them "a bunch of junk," Amyot said. Several, including a "Wizard of Oz" Dorothy worth $300 if never unboxed, won a $5 appraisal. "If you saw them, you would cry," she said.

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