No tickets to ride

May 30, 2006

Clarence Darrow once observed that the "law is a horrible business." The latest evidence of this can be found in the peculiar business of traffic citations on Maryland's military bases and other federal facilities. Thanks to a relatively new interpretation of law - hinged, oddly enough, on Maryland's definition of a public highway - a lot of traffic scofflaws are poised to get away with it.

How did this happen? Well, it's a fairly complicated story, but the simple answer is that a decision in January 2005 by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (and reaffirmed by the same court in a similar case last October) found that a Virginia motorist couldn't be convicted in federal court of driving with a suspended license on the restricted-access road outside CIA headquarters. Why? Because the road wasn't "open to the use of the public" as required by a Virginia statute that is similar to Maryland's.

Earlier this year, Virginia's legislature amended its laws to close this loophole, but it appears lawmakers and prosecutors in Maryland were caught off guard. That includes U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, Maryland's top federal lawyer.

Unfortunately, some federal judges in Maryland have already starting throwing out routine traffic citations in this state, too. And that could be just the start. Maryland is home to an awful lot of federal facilities, from the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda to the National Security Agency in Fort Meade. Last year, the 37,910 violations on federal property resulted in $2.2 million in fines.

The good news is that not all traffic laws depend on the definition of a public highway. Drunken driving laws can still be enforced by military police, for instance. Base commanders may be able to impose their own rules if state traffic laws can't be enforced. And there's also a chance that a more narrow interpretation of the 4th Circuit decision will eventually prevail.

But no matter the resolution, the episode is a reminder that in matters of law, the devil is often in the details. The fact that certain basic traffic rules have been made unenforceable on these federal properties is no single person's fault so much as it is a reflection of the intricate, interwoven nature of federal and state laws.

Not satisfied by such lofty explanations? Well, there's always the Shakespearean notion of killing all the lawyers. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the study of law may be sublime, but its practice continues to be pretty vulgar.

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