Federal rulings may shift Md. law

Political leaders want to change state's definition of a highway and close a loophole

June 20, 2006|By MATTHEW DOLAN | MATTHEW DOLAN,SUN REPORTER

Members of Maryland's political leadership want to change state law after federal judges started to rule that many traffic violations on federal land cannot be prosecuted.

The Sun reported last month that judges in Maryland are throwing out routine traffic infractions at military bases, hospitals and research centers across the state. The result has been that rule-breaking motorists have been let off without penalty and the millions of dollars in ticket revenue could now be at risk.

In federal court, judges must apply state traffic laws when no similar federal law exists. But noting appeals court decisions, the judges ruled that states' definition of public highways does not include secured roads in and around gated installations run by federal agencies.

When federal prosecutors brought traffic cases based on definitions in Maryland starting last fall, several federal magistrate judges said there was problem.

Yesterday, state Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he has asked legislative services to draft a bill to address the issue by changing the state's definition of a public highway and closing the loophole.

"This is a serious problem," said Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "And it's a problem with a fuse on it. We need to address it quickly."

His comments were echoed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's Democrat.

"It's a situation that needs to be addressed," Miller said yesterday. "Judges cause these kinds of problems all of the time. They find laws unconstitutional, and we need to come back and revise the statute."

Both legislators said that the issue was never expected to be addressed by the General Assembly during its recent one-day special session. The governor did not list the issue in his petition to call the session, they said.

"We refused to take up a lot of issues," Miller said when asked why the General Assembly did not raise it on its own. "But this is an issue that cries out for redress so we'll do something about it eventually."

Frosh said he expects a bill to be ready for him to introduce during the next regular legislative session in January.

The problem in Maryland arose last fall when a series of appellate court rulings forced federal district judges in Maryland to reconsider whether they could enforce traffic laws.

Some defense lawyers said the definition of what is a public highway may have been designed intentionally to protect federal reservations and private land, including farms, from intrusive state traffic regulations.

But Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, the state's top federal prosecutor, believed otherwise.

Last month, he wrote Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch with his recommendation for a change in the state's definition of a public highway.

"If the problem is not resolved by the Maryland legislature, the alternative would be for the federal government to adopt separate federal traffic laws unique to federal reservations and installations," Rosenstein said.

But Rosenstein said that solution would "create confusion and inconsistencies."

Faced with a similar problem, Virginia enacted emergency legislation to change its traffic law, Rosenstein said.

Jervis S. Finney, chief legal counsel to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said yesterday that the letter raised "good points" worthy of greater review.

While waiting for a solution, the issue continues to play out often in the lower rungs of the state's federal court.

Later this week, a man charged with driving under a suspended license is scheduled for trial at Aberdeen Proving Ground. Lawyers familiar with the case said that the charges against him could be dropped because of the quirk in the law.

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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