Prosecutors dropped all but the most serious traffic offenses - those carrying jail time - against Thomas Meighan Jr. on Tuesday as the investigation continues into whether the Elkridge man can be charged with vehicular manslaughter in the hit-and-run death of a Johns Hopkins student.
Some said the move could be meant to avoid a quirk in Maryland law that invokes double jeopardy if a defendant pays a traffic fine and is later criminally charged on that underlying offense. But prosecutors declined to comment on the strategy.
Meanwhile, others wondered if a manslaughter charge, which carries a 10-year prison penalty, would be possible.
"It sounds like the prosecutors felt comfortable charging him with everything around the accident, but not with the [actual] accident," said David Gray, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.
To charge automobile manslaughter prosecutors would need to prove that Meighan struck JHU junior Miriam Frankl with his white Ford F-250 and was drinking and showing active negligence while doing so, or that he was driving with gross negligence - a "wanton and reckless disregard for human life."
But so far, they've yet to publicly prove he was driving the vehicle. Witnesses place the white truck driving erratically throughout Baltimore for hours on Oct. 16, the day of the hit-and-run, but Meighan claims he lent his vehicle to a friend. A call to his attorney Tuesday was not returned.
Lawyers unaffiliated with the case said the remaining charges suggest that prosecutors can show Meighan was the driver.
"They must believe that they can put him behind the wheel [or] they shouldn't be able to charge him with anything," said Brian G. Thompson, a former assistant state's attorney who is now in private practice in Baltimore. They might not, however, be able to show the negligence component, he said.
Meighan, 39, was arrested over the weekend on 18 driving offenses the day Frankl was hit, including running red lights on Broadway, and unsafe lane changes on Eastern Avenue and Northern Parkway, along with more serious charges on St. Paul Street, where the hit-and-run occurred.
But one of the lesser charges was dropped during a bail review hearing Monday, during which he was ordered held without bond. And eight other charges, those that carry only a monetary fine, were dropped Tuesday, including negligent and reckless driving on St. Paul Street.
The charges that remain involve a collision with an SUV on Belair Road and leaving the scene of an accident in Frankl's hit-and-run. They carry prison penalties of less than six years upon conviction.
"The problem is for people like this, the penalties aren't stiff enough," said Carroll County Assistant State's Attorney Dave Daggett.
Meighan has at least 21 motor vehicle convictions throughout the state, including eight for drunken driving. His license was suspended in September. More than a half-dozen of his driving offenses occurred in Carroll County.
"When you're talking about incorrigible people with a record like this, who are just menaces, obviously they can't stop. They can't stop themselves," Daggett said.
Prosecutors also filed a motion Tuesday to revoke Meighan's $100,000 bail on unrelated hit-and-run charges from a July 31 collision in Baltimore.
Said Daggett: "I hope they get him. I'm looking at his record, and it's not pretty."
Sun reporter Don Markus contributed to this article.
Charges against Thomas Meighan Jr.
St. Paul Street charges:
1.) Driving on a suspended license (Maximum penalty of 1 year in prison)
2.) Failure to stop vehicle at bodily injury accident (1 year)
3.) Failure to remain at scene of accident involving death (1 year)
4.) Failure to stop vehicle at death accident scene (1 year)
5.) Failure to remain at bodily injury accident scene (1 year)
6.) Failure of driver accident to furnish required ID and license (60 days)
7.) Failure to render reasonable assistance to injured person (60 days)
Belair Road charges:
8.) Failure to remain at scene of vehicle damage accident (60 days)
7.) Failure to stop after accident involving vehicle damage (60 days)