Federal judges in Maryland are throwing out routine traffic violations at military bases, hospitals and research centers across the state, giving a free pass to scofflaw motorists and putting at risk some of the millions of dollars in ticket revenue.
One judge at Andrews Air Force Base tossed out every traffic citation on his docket earlier this month.
Other judges have acquitted defendants charged with driving with a suspended license at the Bethesda-based National Naval Medical Center and National Institutes of Health.
At the center of the judges' rulings is an odd legal question: What exactly is a public highway?
In federal court, judges must apply state traffic laws when no similar federal law exists. When federal prosecutors brought traffic cases based on the legal definition of a public highway in Maryland last fall, several judges started to rule against them.
They cited new appeals court decisions finding that the state's definition of public highways does not include secured roads in and around gated installations run by federal agencies.
That could now make motorists driving through sprawling installations such as Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County and the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, to name only a few, immune from many traffic citations written by military police officers or the installations' own police force.
The issue carries special weight in Maryland, which handles more federal misdemeanor cases than any other U.S. district.
That is because of the state's unusually high concentration of more than 50 federal installations, many in the Washington suburbs.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Hollis R. Weisman of Maryland said the court decisions do not affect prosecution of more serious vehicular crimes, such as reckless or drunken driving, which are crimes no matter where they occur. Still, she warned that the situation must be resolved.
"Bus drivers, truck drivers, pedestrians and people driving their personal vehicles would undoubtedly be surprised to find out that the court does not consider these roadways to be public highways," Weisman wrote in court documents involving a traffic case at the National Institutes of Health.
"Even more importantly, Congress certainly did not intend for such an institution, open to the public, to be a zone free of traffic laws."
But Maryland federal public defender James Wyda said the state legislature might have crafted its law so that private or government-secured land would be protected from a limited number of routine traffic violations.
Other defense attorneys also said the exemption has a legitimate purpose.
"I wouldn't think that every jeep and tank at a military base needs to be registered with the state of Maryland," said Rockville attorney Neil Jacobs, who successfully defended a motorist charged with driving with a suspended license at the National Naval Medical Center.
For now, the current appellate rulings could affect the fate of thousands of motorists in the state who drive on federal land.
The NIH campus, for example, has 20,000 to 30,000 employees on any single day.
The National Security Agency at Fort Meade, off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, has an estimated 15,000 workers.
The fort itself spans 5,415 acres with almost 66 miles of paved roads.
The Beltsville Agricultural Research Center covers 7,000 acres in northern Prince George's County.
And the volume of traffic cases will probably go up.
The military's base realignment plan is expected to bring 40,000 to 60,000 new government, contractor and service jobs to Aberdeen Proving Ground, Fort Meade and surrounding areas in four to six years.
The break for wayward motorists started last year when a defense lawyer successfully challenged a Virginia law.
Stopped on CIA land
Terrence O. Smith said he mistakenly drove onto a restricted-access road outside CIA headquarters in McLean early one morning in October 2002.
He was stopped at gunpoint by two security officers, who checked his driver's license and found that it had been suspended.
A federal judge in Virginia convicted Smith of driving with a suspended license on a publicly accessible "highway."
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals -- which also covers Maryland -- concluded in January 2005 that the lower court mistakenly applied the law.
Smith, according to the appeals court, could not be found guilty of the charge because he was on a road that was not "open to the use of the public" as required under the state's definition of a highway.
The court upheld its view in an October decision, ruling that Samuel C. Adams could not be convicted of driving with a suspended license because he was driving along a closed road in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in southern Virginia.
The Virginia definition of a highway was similar to the one in Maryland. According to federal prosecutors, Virginia has since changed its law; Maryland has not.