Carroll judge reprimanded for his role in car accident in Ocean City in October

Formal proceedings aren't warranted, says disciplinary commission

February 26, 2002|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Carroll County Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. has received a private reprimand from the commission that disciplines the state's judges, ending an investigation into an unusual traffic accident in the fall that Ocean City police said he caused and knew wasn't reported to authorities.

Burns signed his consent last week to the reprimand and to the release of a public statement yesterday by the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities.

"As a result of the investigation and Judge Burns' willingness to consent to this statement, the commission concluded that formal proceedings were not warranted," it said.

According to the statement released by the commission, "The private reprimand was issued based upon an investigation conducted by the commission's investigative counsel regarding Judge Burns' involvement in an automobile accident in Ocean City, Maryland, in October, 2001," it said, without characterizing his involvement.

Burns, 68, of Westminster could not be reached for comment yesterday, but previously has declined to discuss the matter. He signed the public statement as "consented and agreed to" with his attorney, H. Russell Smouse, and Steven P. Lemmey, the commission's investigative counsel.

"With regard to the matter before the commission, I think it is fair to say that Judge Burns understands and accepts the decision of the commission and is pleased to have this matter behind him," said Smouse. "Judge Burns has served the people of Carroll County with distinction since 1979."

The investigation arose from news accounts of the judge's role in an accident the night of Oct. 2, when Burns, a passenger in the middle front seat of his car, depressed the accelerator as he and a group of golfers were leaving Windows on the Bay Restaurant near Coastal Highway and 61st Street, according to Ocean City police and other authorities.

A friend, Horace Sterling Brauning Jr., 71, of Finksburg had been driving Burns' car because Brauning had not been drinking during dinner.

The next day, police investigating a complaint from a resident of the Trader Bay townhouses found tire tracks 30 to 40 feet long -- a distance in which Burns' car went over a concrete parking bumper, hit a small sign, pushed aside a utility trailer loaded with two personal watercraft, damaged several shrubs and the wooden screen around an outside air-conditioning unit, before traveling back over a concrete bumper and on to the townhouse parking lot.

"They knew they hit something, but they thought it was just trees," Jay Hancock, spokesman for Ocean City police, said after he visited the scene of the accident a few days after it occurred. "If you hit trees on private property, you have to report it," he said. "If he's a judge, he knows you don't hit something and drive away -- even if you're not the driver."

Although no one witnessed the accident other than the passengers in the car, the headlight cover of a Lincoln automobile was found at the scene, police said. On Oct. 4, an officer spotted a damaged Lincoln at a motel near Gold Coast Mall, and as it was being towed, Burns approached police and said the car was his, and that he had not been driving when it was damaged.

He said the driver was Brauning, who had not been drinking at the restaurant Oct. 2, according to police.

Brauning paid a $120 ticket this month to Worcester County District Court for failing to remain at the scene of an accident with property damage to provide insurance information, said Deputy State's Attorney Daniel Mumford. Two similar charges were dropped before the trial date Feb. 4. Burns was not charged.

Smouse declined to elaborate on the scope of the investigation or the accident, other than to say, "Flat out: He was not driving the car."

Burns was named to the District Court in Carroll in 1978, and elevated to the Circuit Court a year later.

In 1997, the judge pleaded guilty and received a fine and probation before judgment on a charge of driving with a suspended license, after a minor traffic accident near Westminster in December 1996. Burns' license had been suspended in February 1996, after he twice failed to appear in Baltimore County District Court for a 1995 speeding ticket.

Most files on complaints against judges are closed before they reach a preliminary investigation stage, said Lemmey, in part because so many of the accusations against judges are unfounded. Aside from outright dismissal, the lowest action on a complaint would be dismissal with a warning that is not made public.

"So a private reprimand with a public statement would be the third step up," he said.

More serious steps include a public reprimand, and finally charges before the commission, which could bring actions ranging from dismissal of the charges to censure to removal of a judge, he said. These most punitive actions can be appealed by the judge to the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court.

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