Bill to close traffic ticket gap passes

Assembly OKs plan to apply state law on federal property

General Assembly

April 06, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun Reporter -- Weather Blogger

Responding to reports that traffic cases on federal land were being routinely dismissed, the Maryland General Assembly has approved legislation to ensure that state traffic laws can be applied to roads on military bases and other U.S. government property.

The House of Delegates unanimously approved legislation yesterday that would change the state's definition of highway to include federal land. In February, the Senate voted, 46-0, to pass the bill.

"To me, it was just fixing an oversight or fixing something that had never been intended by anyone," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the measure. "We do intend to have people follow the traffic law in federal enclaves."

The Sun reported the trend last year, noting that dismissing such cases imperiled millions of dollars in ticket revenue.

In federal court, judges must apply state traffic laws when no similar federal law exists. But last fall, Maryland prosecutors noticed that when they brought traffic cases based on the legal definition of a public highway, several judges began ruling against them.

U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, Maryland's top federal prosecutor, said the decisions by some federal magistrate judges were the result of a 2005 decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concerning a Virginia case. The court ruled that roads on federal installations were not highways under Virginia law.

Virginia's legislature has since altered its law defining highway. The Maryland bill makes a similar change.

"The impact has been significant because there are some federal facilities where the traffic laws have not been enforced over the past several months," Rosenstein said. "This makes clear that state traffic laws do apply.

Frosh said that correcting the problem is important in Maryland, with its many sprawling federal installations.

"We're not talking about small areas. Look at Aberdeen Proving Ground," he said. "There need to be laws about what the rules of the roads are, and the federal government doesn't do that. So it's up to us. "Some defense attorneys have said that Maryland's long-standing definition of a public highway might have existed to protect federal reservations and private land from intrusive state regulations.

Rockville attorney Neil Jacobs successfully defended a motorist charged with driving with a suspended license at the National Naval Medical Center.

"The reasoning was that federal enclaves were treated as a gated community and should be treated as private property," he said. "The judge found the law concerning driving on a suspended license was not applicable to my client's situation."

Such an interpretation has resulted in the lack of enforcement of routine traffic laws.

"Right now, it is not illegal to drive on Andrews Air Force Base after your license has been revoked," Assistant U.S. Attorney Hollis R. Weisman testified before House and Senate committees. "Nor is it illegal to speed at [the National Institutes of Health] or go through a stop sign at Bethesda naval hospital."

"The police officers are frustrated," Weisman said in interview yesterday. "If someone is coming down a 25-mph zone and they are going 50 mph, the officer can't write a ticket."

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

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