Judges Dismissing Maryland Traffic Violations On Federal Properties

May 22, 2006

Because of a quirk in Maryland law, federal judges are dismissing routine traffic violations at military bases, hospitals and research centers.

One judge at Andrews Air Force Base threw out every traffic citation on his docket this month. Other judges have acquitted defendants charged with driving with suspended licenses at the Bethesda-based National Naval Medical Center and National Institutes of Health, The (Baltimore) Sun reported.

This all hinges on the legal definition of a public highway.

In federal court, judges must apply state traffic laws when no similar federal law exists. When federal prosecutors brought traffic cases based on the legal definition of a public highway in Maryland last fall, several judges started to rule against them, citing new appeals court rulings that the state’s definition of public highways does not include secured roads in and around gated installations run by federal agencies.

That could mean motorists driving through huge installations such as Fort Meade and the U.S. Naval Academy are immune from many traffic citations written by military police officers or the installations’ own police force.

The issue especially affects Maryland, which handles more federal misdemeanor cases than any other U.S. district. Many are in the Washington suburbs.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Hollis R. Weisman of Maryland said the court decisions do not affect prosecution of serious vehicular crimes, such as reckless or drunken driving but she warned that the situation must be resolved.

“Bus drivers, truck drivers, pedestrians and people driving their personal vehicles would undoubtedly be surprised to find out that the court does not consider these roadways to be public highways,” Weisman wrote in court documents involving a traffic case at the National Institutes of Health.

But Maryland federal public defender James Wyda said General Assembly might have written the law so that private or government-secured land would be protected from a limited number of routine traffic violations.

The change started last year when a defense lawyer challenged a Virginia law.

Driver Terrence O. Smith said he drove, by mistake, onto a restricted-access road outside CIA headquarters in McLean early one morning in October 2002.

He was stopped at gunpoint by security officers, who found Smith’s driver’s license had been suspended.

A federal judge in Virginia convicted Smith of driving with a suspended license on a publicly accessible “highway.”

But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which also covers Maryland, concluded in January 2005 that the lower court mistakenly applied the law.

Smith, according to the appeals court, could not be found guilty of the charge because he was on a road that was not “open to the use of the public” as required under the state’s definition of a highway.

The court upheld its view in an October decision, ruling that another driver could not be convicted of driving with a suspended license because he was driving along a closed road in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in southern Virginia.

The Virginia definition of a highway was similar to the one in Maryland. According to federal prosecutors, Virginia has since changed its law; Maryland has not.

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