Court increases service emphasis

Judges hope community tasks will make lasting impression on speeders

November 30, 2003|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Caught driving 92 mph on Interstate 95, John Swider won a no-points reprieve from Howard District Judge Sue-Ellen Hantman - only to learn that it would cost him 27 hours of community service.

The 34-year-old scuba instructor from Washington tried to beg off, citing his long stays in Puerto Rico for work, but the judge wouldn't budge.

"I want you to remember not to speed," she said, as she handed down the sentence last week. "It has to be painful."

That philosophy has recently shaped the practices of Howard's newest District Court judge in minor traffic cases - and, in the process, swelled the ranks of volunteers available to government agencies and nonprofit groups in the region.

On days when Hantman presides over speeding and less serious traffic cases, violators are likely to come away with a coveted "probation before judgment," a sentencing option that keeps both points and a conviction off of a driver's record.

But that reprieve often comes with a caveat for those caught driving 20 mph or more above the posted speed - one work hour without pay for every mile above the speed limit.

"I don't just give them community service," Hantman said. "I remind them: I want you to think ... how many nanoseconds you saved with that 1 mph over the speed limit. You're exchanging that nanosecond for one hour of community service."

Howard's judges have always been supportive of the community service program as a sentencing alternative, said Neil E. Dorsey, who oversees the program through the Howard sheriff's office. But with the addition of Hantman to the five-member District Court bench in January - and Judge Pamila J. Brown eight months before - the number of referrals has jumped.

"We're very full, and we're always out recruiting and looking for work sites - particularly weekend work sites," Dorsey said.

Between July and October, more than 1,100 people walked through the doors of the community service office in Ellicott City, most sent by order of the court, Dorsey said. That's compared with 1,962 referrals for the 12-month fiscal year that ended June 30.

The larger pool of volunteers may make it more difficult for those who can only work weekends to get their hours out of the way quickly, Dorsey said.

And the numbers are likely to get even higher. Hantman said community service has only become part of her routine for higher speed violators - those going 20 mph or more above the speed limit - in the last several weeks.

Other Howard judges say they may use community service in high-speed cases, particularly involving younger drivers. Some will use it with a probation before judgment for first-time offenders in criminal cases.

"It's an opportunity for a defendant to contribute back to the community in a positive way," said Brown, who estimated that she uses the option in about one-third of the cases she handles.

Howard District Judge Louis A. Becker III said the service hours have proved to be an effective sentencing alternative for violators who may have trouble paying a fine or for teen-age drivers whose parents would just pay the extra court and insurance costs.

"I just think it makes more of an impact," he said. "I've had some nice feedback from parents."

For Hantman, a former Howard prosecutor, the draw of the community service program is its impact. She also frequently sends high-speed drivers to a program that uses talks by trauma nurses, funeral home directors and crash victims to drive home the dangers of speeding.

"It's an effort to save lives. I don't know what else to do," she said. "Paying a fine is too easy. They pay it, they walk out and they forget about it."

In court, Hantman usually starts her hourlong dockets with a speech that details her sentencing style. Then she moves through the cases, pausing at points to explain to hurried drivers that the extra speed saved them a few minutes at most. In some cases, she tells violators that the probationary period will be three years; if they get a ticket during that time, she could reopen the case and replace the probation before judgment with motor vehicle points, she says.

On a recent Wednesday, most drivers accepted their fates quietly. Others, like Swider, asked her to reconsider the community service hours.

"I almost want to, in retrospect, just pay the money and send in the ticket because 27 hours to me, that's like four days' worth of work," Swider said later.

But at least one young driver in Hantman's courtroom said he was grateful for his probation before judgment, even if it did come with 31 hours of community service.

"I'd rather do anything than have five points on my license, because I'm sure my insurance would have a field day with that," said Stephen Coffey, a 20-year-old North Laurel resident caught driving 86 mph in a 55 mph zone. "I can rest a little easier."

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