Crosswalk citation stings driving some to lawyers

Motorists who violate law must show in court and could get jail time

November 04, 2003|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

As Roberta Malleck approached the crosswalk in front of the High's store on Laurel's Main Street one day this summer, she thought nothing of the man lingering by the side of the road until he began waving his hands after she drove by.

Within moments, she had been stopped and cited by police, caught in a sting to enforce the state's crosswalk law.

Months later, Malleck, 49, a Burtonsville resident and an instructional assistant for Montgomery County schools, is still angry at Laurel police for the way they set their trap - and she is disturbed that such a basic violation carries such a harsh penalty.

"I really didn't think a whole lot of it until I got a summons letter saying you could go to jail," she said. "I couldn't believe it. ... I'm an upstanding citizen."

Malleck's legal woes come courtesy of a statewide effort to improve pedestrian safety. Armed with federal grant money funneled through the State Highway Administration, several police departments across Maryland have added crosswalk enforcement to their usual complement of speed traps, sobriety checkpoints and prostitution stings.

The resulting cases have stunned some legal officials, who say they were surprised to learn the offense carries a maximum jail sentence of two months and maximum fine of $500. The stings have also annoyed drivers, some of whom have hired attorneys to represent them for a required appearance in District Court.

"Depending on the circumstances, if I got a ticket, I think I'd come in and fight it, too," said Michael A. Weal, the District Court chief for the Howard state's attorney's office. "Most people seem to be fighting them because they don't believe they did anything wrong."

Still, state officials say the enforcement efforts, along with public service announcements, other education efforts and engineering improvements, are to help reduce pedestrian fatalities, which have hovered at about 100 a year in Maryland.

"It is a problem, and we want to make it so crossing the street isn't a life-threatening or life-defying act," said Lora Rakowski, a State Highway Administration spokeswoman.

Ten municipalities, including Baltimore City and Baltimore, Harford, Howard and Anne Arundel counties, have received crosswalk enforcement grant money, highway officials said.

The stings are fairly basic, police said. An officer dressed in civilian clothes acts as a decoy by the side of the road while colleagues wait on either side of the crosswalk to catch violators. As a driver approaches the marked asphalt, the decoy officer steps onto the road and starts to cross.

Depending on the police department, motorists who fail to stop may leave with a warning or could face a serious traffic charge.

Lawyers hired to represent those cited for violators say some of their clients insist that the officer jumped into the street as they passed or that the "pedestrian" hugged the side of the road without crossing. But their accounts often differ from those of the officers, and many of the drivers have no witnesses to back them up.

One man was so incensed about the citation that he returned to the site of a Howard County sting with a video camera, said Columbia lawyer Terrence C. McAndrews, who has handled a few crosswalk cases in the county.

"People are getting cranky about it," he said.

Howard police say they have tried to give motorists plenty of time to stop. They calculate necessary stopping distances based on speed and reaction time, and step into the crosswalk only before a driver reaches the cones that mark off those distances, said police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn.

Some people aren't as bothered by the charge as the possible penalty, lawyers say.

"The idea that it carries jail time is just mind-boggling," said Columbia attorney William E. Erskine, who represents Malleck. His case is pending in Prince George's County District Court.

Even Baltimore County Del. Joseph C. Boteler III, who spearheaded a recent successful bid to clarify the provisions of the crosswalk law and said he supports the stings as a good way to deal with aggressive driving, plans to propose an amendment that would change the penalties to something more in line with a speeding violation.

Maryland's crosswalk law applies only to crossings where there is no traffic signal. It requires motorists to stop at the marked pavement when a pedestrian is in their lane or approaching from the next lane.

"To me, we're better off having smaller ticket prices and hitting a lot more people with it, and eventually people will get the message," Boteler said.

The harsher penalties also mean higher attorneys fees. A handful of lawyers who have handled the cases say they charge upward of $750, more than for a speeding ticket but the same or a little less than the tab for a driving-while-impaired charge.

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