January 2011 Archives

Distracted Driving on Maryland Legislature's Short List

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Maryland lawmakers are already beginning to see that their pathetic attempt to restrict the use of cell phones and other electronic devices while behind the wheel needs drastic improvement. The House subcommittee on highway safety will begin the process by seeking to close a loophole in Maryland's texting-while driving ban that allows motorists to read messages. Baltimore County Democrat, Del. James E. Malone Jr., said the committee might also consider whether the cell phone ban adopted last year as a secondary offense, insufficient in itself to trigger a traffic stop, should be made a primary offense.

I am going to vent a bit right now. Studies have shown that texting while driving can be as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than drinking and driving. While I was driving to work today I saw several drivers staring at their phones while careening down 95 traveling 65-75mph in two ton vehicles filled with gas. The current penalty is $40 for the first offense and $100 for subsequent offenses. The kicker is that legally you can text away and call all of your friends and the police can't pull you over unless you are breaking some other law.

Drunken Driving on Maryland Legislature's Short List

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Maryland legislature will pick up right where it left off this upcoming year. One of the expected proposals is to require those convicted of druken driving to install ignition interlock devices. Last year in the final hours of the 2010 legislative session a bill that would have made the interlock device mandatory for first time defenders was defeated in the House Judiciary Committee. The bill could have passed if MADD compromised and agreed to mandatory interlock for first time offenders if they were found to have a blood alcohol level higher than the legal limit of .08 percent. However, the House Judiciary Chairman could not persuade MADD. MADD Maryland and other advocates vow to continue to push for the for the mandatory penalty in the 2011 legislative session under the premise "not all compromise is progress".

FTA: Maryland Courts' Least Favorite Letters

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If you have ever had the pleasure of sitting through the morning or afternoon docket at your local Maryland or Virginia District Court you would start to realize that certain phrases tend to repeat themselves. Nolle prosequi, probation before judgment and guilty with an explanation, are just a couple phrases that are used regularly in criminal and traffic court. One of the phrases that may be used more than any other by a judge is often said in the form of an acronym. A defendant's name is called and no one comes forward; "FTA", the judge will say followed by the inevitable issue of a bench warrant. FTA stands for failure to appear. I like to think that the majority of people know what FTA is and the consequences it carries. I am not sure if my belief is well founded.

No More Automatic Trials for Traffic Tickets in Maryland

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As of January 1, 2011, if you want your day in court for a traffic citation you must request a trial. Drivers also have the option to seek a penalty-only hearing where guilt is admitted but the accused can request less severe sentencing. For example, a defendant could ask for a reduction in fine and points or a probation before judgment. Up until now, in Maryland, a driver who received a traffic citation would later receive a notice to appear and the corresponding trial date. Some would simply pay the fine in order to avoid having to appear in court, others would show up and contest the ticket or plead guilty with an explanation and the less responsible defendant would fail to appear. A failure to appear, or as it is more commonly referred to FTA, would usually result in suspension of the driver's license. Now, a driver who receives a minor traffic ticket will have 30 days to either pay the fine, request a trial or seek a penalty-only hearing. If the driver fails to request a trial or pay the fine there is an additional 20 day grace period after which the driver's license will likely be suspended.

Criminal Cases and Violations of Probation

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If you violate probation in Maryland, the Court can reinstate the maximum sentence. When the Court givegremlin.jpgs conditions of probation in a criminal case, defendants may not realize their significance. Defendants are amenable because at that moment probation is the best outcome, and usually involves a suspended or partially suspended sentence, nolle prosequi of other charges, shortened incarceration or the golden ticket of dispositions, probation before judgement. If a Defendant fails to comply with the conditions of probation, the consequences are often disastrous. Some common conditions associated with DUI/DWI convictions include alcohol treatment, alcoholics anonymous, MADD victim impact panel, interlock, abstention from alcohol, essays and community service. Some common conditions associated with theft and other related felonies include no subsequent offenses, community service and restitution. These conditions remain until the period of probation is completed. If a condition must be completed before probation ends, and is not, a violation of probation will occur. Conditions of probation and the possible consequences of a violation of probation remind me of the classic 80's movie Gremlins.

Maryland State Official May Benefit From Sentencing Error

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Anne Arundel Circuit Court Judge Ronald A. Silkworth and specially assigned Talbot County prosecutor, Henry Dove, created quite the controversy recently. The director of Maryland's attorney general's civil rights office, Carl O. Snowden, recently plead guilty to drunk driving. In return, the state prosecutor agreed to not recommend sentencing and to drop the other charges. Sounds about right, if the conviction was Snowden's first, but it was not. Maybe the probation before judgment was appropriate because five years had passed since his last conviction. After all, Snowden's previous probation before judgement for drunk driving was eight years ago. Not so fast, a recent change in Maryland law requires that only one PBJ be given every ten years for drunk driving. If you didn't know that the law changed, don't be embarrassed because the "specially assigned" prosecutor didn't know either.

Probation before judgement (PBJ) is a benefit often given to first-time offenders, allowing a defendant to escape a conviction if he or she complies with all of the conditions of probation (this is where we could put a link to my previous article). Eventually, the defendant can ask a judge to expunge the record.

I recently had to make a winter trip to Ocean City, Maryland to represent a client for drunk driving, along with a laundry list of other charges in the Worcester County District Court. My client was a Hispanic man who had a prior DWI conviction less than five years ago. Whenever there is a prior drunk driving conviction the Court tends to give a more severe sentence. The State's Attorney agreed to drop all of the other charges, including DUI, and pursue only the lesser charge of DWI. With the aid of a Spanish interpreter I advised my client of the State's offer and how a guilty plea would affect his rights. He agreed to the terms of the plea agreement and we walked into the courtroom together.

I was informed by one of the Court employees that Judge Mumford, who was on the bench, "always" gave jail time to subsequent offenders and that I should expect 10-20 days. Pretty severe, but the Court believes drunk driving puts people's lives at risk and my client should be held accountable for his actions. I watched a few other drunk driving cases before my client's case was called. The first case was a first time drunk driver who was involved in an accident in which no one was hurt. He was given a probation before judgement along with mandatory alcohol treatment, attendance of a MADD victim impact panel, and one year supervised probation along with a hefty fine. I was not surprised, after all in most cases a first time offender will be given the benefit of probation before judgement. The next case involved a woman who had a prior DUI conviction. Her current charge involved an accident and she had a blood alcohol level almost three times the legal limit. She plead guilty to DUI and was sentenced to ten days in jail along with a myriad of other conditions.