House panel chairman disrespects police chief

GETTING THERE

Vallario disdainful of Bealefeld, efforts to save money, officers' time

March 08, 2010|By Michael Dresser | Baltimore Sun reporter

Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III is a man of considerable accomplishments. He runs a department in one of the nation's most violent cities, where he has managed to bring down the murder rate while staying out of ethical trouble.

In Baltimore we appreciate that kind of thing because we don't see it all that often.

So you would think that when such a recognized leader in his field takes the time out of his busy schedule to testify on a bill he considers vital to his department, he would be shown a modicum of respect.

That wasn't the case in the House Judiciary Committee last week, where Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. treated Bealefeld and some of Maryland's other top cops like ignorant schoolchildren when they tried to explain how the peculiarities of the state's traffic courts are draining their resources.

The bill before the committee would end the practice of automatically assigning a court date to anyone given a ticket for a traffic offense. Instead, the recipient of a ticket who wanted a day in court would bear the burden of requesting a trial. According to testimony at the hearing, Maryland is the only state in the Lower 48 that doesn't put that responsibility on the defendant.

Bealefeld, along with police chiefs from all around the state, doesn't like Maryland's system and wants to see it changed. The problem is that with trials granted automatically to those who don't pay their fines in advance, far too many people blow off court dates.

Go to any traffic court in the state on its day for routine traffic cases and you'll hear name after name called with no response. District Court statistics show that of the 1.2 million or so tickets issued in Maryland each year, about 55 percent are resolved when the violator sends in the fine, and the remaining 45 percent are placed on the docket. But in more than half of the docketed cases, the defendant fails to appear.

This frustrates Bealefeld and other police officials - from the state police superintendent down to the municipal chief in Hyattsville - because their officers spend an inordinate amount of their time in court to guard against the remote possibility that their testimony will be needed. When defendant after defendant fails to appear, the officers' time is wasted. And since those officers are often receiving overtime pay, the public's money is wasted.

Bealefeld tried to explain to the committee that this represents a serious problem for his department and that House Bill 829 could provide $1 million a year in savings to Baltimore alone just by reducing the number of no-shows. He tried to explain that the legislation would make the court system more efficient, reduce overtime and put more officers on the street.

But Vallario, a career defense lawyer, wasn't having any of it.

The Prince George's County Democrat contended, despite ample testimony to the contrary, that most officers go to traffic court for 20, 40 or 50 cases at a time so that the failure of some defendants to appear is no problem.

"They're not there for one case," Vallario lectured Bealefeld and other police chiefs. "They're there for a docket that's that tall."

Vallario distributed a copy of a court docket that he contended bolstered his case. What he didn't count on was that one of the subsequent witnesses would examine the document.

Phil Hinkle, general counsel for the Calvert County Sheriff's Department, went through the docket line by line pointing out what Vallario ignored: the many instances in which an officer is called into traffic court for only a few cases.

"Officer Morgan, one case ... Officer Morris, one case, Officer Ervin, one case ... Officer Judson, one case, Officer Muncie, three cases," Hinkle intoned as Vallario appeared increasingly annoyed. He should have been irked. It was as thorough a public dressing-down of a committee chairman as I've seen in more than a decade of covering the General Assembly.

But while Hinkle won the mano-a-mano by knockout, Vallario still can kill one of the smartest, most taxpayer-friendly bills in recent memory by locking it in a drawer.

So consider it dead in the House unless Vallario hears from the one person in Annapolis he has to listen to: Speaker Michael E. Busch, who decides who gets to wield a gavel in his chamber. Busch is admirably reluctant to micromanage his chairmen, but he represents a district, too. And District 30 includes the city of Annapolis, which supports the bill and reports that police overtime is a huge problem.

The mayor or police chief in Annapolis ought to give Busch a call and let him know Vallario's treating the speaker's district with the same respect he showed Baltimore's top cop: none.

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