Monday, February 22, 2010

The American Right to Drive...No Matter What

originally published April 23, 2009

It was just a coincidence that on the day of Nick Adelhart’s memorial service I plunked myself down in Courtroom 4 of the Hargrove District Court to do some court watching. Labeled as “serious traffic court,” Courtroom 4 in the south Baltimore courthouse featured the traffic violations for which people can go to jail: drunk driving, driving without insurance, driving with a suspended or revoked license, hit and run, and fleeing from the police.

I wasn’t thinking about Adelhart, the promising young major league pitcher from Maryland whose life, along with two of his friends, was suddenly snuffed out by a drunk driver two weeks ago.

But after a few minutes of court observation my mind turned not only to Adelhart but to Geraldine Wu, the teacher, wife and mother whose 1998 death was chronicled in a March 29th Baltimore Sun article. She was accidentally killed by young men who were road racing, including Frederick Hansen. According to the article, Hansen had been a chronic and excessive speeder before the accident. After doing 15 months on a manslaughter conviction for Wu’s death, he has continued to pile up numerous speeding violations with little repercussion.

I thought of Wu and all the victims who came after her through the years as I watched Vladimir Koyfman, charged with driving under the influence of alcohol only three months after finishing probation for a previous drunk driving conviction. He was represented by Curt Anderson, a member of the House of Delegates, who was greeted warmly by Judge George M. Lipman: “It’s nice to see you this morning, Mr. Anderson.” I immediately knew Koyfman wasn’t going to jail.

Anderson informed the judge that Koyfman, a Russian immigrant, was on medication for wounds sustained as a Russian soldier which contributed to his swerving on the road. His client, said Anderson, “tries hard to obey our American laws” and was “already punished” by spending a day and a half in jail and having his license suspended for six months.

“I’m not big on jail in these cases but this is the second time around,” Lipman told Koyfman. Noting that drunk driving was a “bigger threat to public safety” than drug and assault cases, Lipman wanted to know how he could be sure that it wouldn’t happen again. Koyfman gave him his “word.” Lipman then suspended a 60-day jail sentence, imposed a fine, ordered alcohol counseling, and let him go.

Like Anderson, defense lawyers often claim that having a license suspended is “punishment.” That’s only for defendants who obey the law and don’t drive when their license is suspended. For those who drive anyway there was little consequence in Courtroom 4.

My favorite defendant was Rodney Evans, a confident, unworried defendant who was charged with driving on a suspended license, driving an uninsured vehicle, and having a suspended registration. In other words, Evans drove with nothing but contempt for the motor vehicle laws. And the laws, as enforced, deserve his contempt.

The prosecutor, after dropping the last two charges, read off Evans’ driving record. It contained numerous convictions for driving while suspended as well as a charge for fleeing and eluding the police. Evans also had a criminal record for drug dealing and he was currently on probation for drug possession. I wondered what excuse Evans’ high-profile lawyer, A. Dwight Petit, was going to come up with in a case for which the state should have been seeking the maximum punishment.

Petit, as cool a customer as Evans, had been listening carefully to Lipman and gave him the hook on which to hang his ruling. Evans, said Petit, had not been suspended from driving for “public safety” reasons but for failing to pay child support. In the next breath, Petit argued with a straight face that jail would be inappropriate because Evans was supporting his three children.

“Your lawyer has hit the nail on the head,” Lipman told Evans. Not only did he refuse to incarcerate him he refused to impose a fine, though Evans could afford to drive around in a BMW and hire Petit. Instead Lipman imposed probation, assuring Evans that it was no big deal because he would just report to the same probation agent he already had.

Lipman made it abundantly clear that any excuse would do. No one had to verify whether any of the defendants were actually employed, as claimed, actually supporting children, as claimed, actually on medication, as claimed, or actually cleaning up their act, as claimed.

Driving in America is not a privilege but a right, more sacred than any in the Bill of Rights, and the courts are loathe to punish anyone exercising that right. We may wring our hands over the manner in which victims like Nick Adelhart and Geraldine Wu die, but we shouldn’t be surprised. Every day, in Hargrove’s Courtroom 4 and traffic courts everywhere, judges dismiss even our “serious” traffic laws as inconsequential.

Maybe it hits too close to home, since judges drive, too. But the option of jail is just too tough for many judges to swallow, even when drivers pose a lethal threat to others behind the wheel and refuse to change their behavior.

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