A Criminal Lack of Leadership

If you happened to listen to Warren Monk’s Word on the Street program last night, you heard our discussion of the proposal to create a special “DUI” license plate. After reading Eludius‘ take on the subject, it got me to thinking about the crime issue and how this gimmick of an idea is what passes in Annapolis for “getting tough on crime.”

See, I am a criminal defense lawyer. I represent a lot of people accused of drunk driving (Shameless plug alert) and I sit through my share of criminal dockets as part of my job. I know just how lenient the Maryland courts are on not only drunk drivers but many violent criminals as well.

(Great stuff and useful legal tidbits below the fold!) (Crossposted)

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I am constantly surprised how clients who have been pulled over for DUI and have never been in trouble before are scared to death that they may go to jail or lose their license. The fact is for the “run of the mill case” (shameless disclaimer alert) of someone without a criminal record, who hires a good lawyer, gets some treatment and stays out of trouble will likely end up without a criminal conviction and have a modified suspension of their license which allows them to drive to work or, if you refuse the breathalyzer or are “superdrunk”, have an ignition interlock on their car.

For the most part, the worst part of the experience is paying my bill. (Just kidding, sort of).

Violent assaults get the same lax treatment. While I don’t handle as many of these cases, I see them regularly and I know people would be shocked if they knew how many defendants who commit violent crimes walk in and out of Maryland courts everyday. This reality is not just true in the “Big City” but in the relatively conservative suburbs of Anne Arundel and Harford counties.

Not only do routine assault convictions not lead to jail time, they often do not even lead to a criminal conviction.


Let me give you a couple of reasons you may not know first.

Did you know that Maryland has a statute that allows defendants to pay their victims’ medical bills and avoid a conviction? It’s true. I have seen it used successfully. (Hey, that is how we make the big bucks.)

Do you know about “Probation before judgment“? You may heard of this. Basically, it means that if you successfully complete a period of probation there is no conviction on your record. You can honestly state you have never been convicted of a crime.PBJ (that is what we call it) is standard operating procedure for a wide variety of offenses and offenders. There are few exceptions to when this disposition is not available and it is a powerful incentive to defendants to plea out cases which is why prosecutors and defense attorneys love it. It really is the next best thing to an acquittal, the proverbial “slap on the wrist”.

And that is what most drunk drivers get. And it is why we are not tough on drunk drivers and too many violent offenders here in Maryland.

The mere fact of getting a criminal conviction is powerful to many clients. A “criminal record” affects professional licensure, can destroy any chance at a security clearance and generally hurt the job prospects of many people. I have seen people willing to go to jail just to get “PBJ” when they get out.

That’s right. The simple bureaucratic act of having a conviction, something that costs nothing to the taxpayers, would, to many, be a harsher punishment than time in the poky. In many states, that is exactly what you would get by the way. First time convicted drunk drivers in Georgia serve at least 24 hours in jail. Here we don’t even really convict them.

And that is the long way to the bigger point. This “DUI” plate idea does not touch any of this. In fact, it does not even come into play until someone gets a third conviction (which by the way is about how many DUI’s you need to actually go to jail in this state).

The sad fact is that there is no one in the legislature, Republican or Democrat, pointing out the outrageous leniency in our system and the inherent danger it creates for every single one of us. Common sense solutions like “PBJ” reform are never even discussed and there is no Republican agenda to counter the liberal, democrat view that punishment is the problem (you know, too many people in jail already) and not the solution to crime (i.e., keep those who commit crime off the street).

I have spoken with Republican members of the Judiciary committee in Annapolis about this. You get the same refrain “Joe Vallario and Brian Frosh will bury those ideas”. Rather than confront this liberal lawyer establishment, our guys alternate between “small ball” like Jessica’s Law (where they can make great political hay but ultimately do little to make Marylanders safer) and doing nothing at all.

If the Republican caucus can put out an alternative budget which shows a different vision of what Maryland would be like if we ran the show, why can’t it be done with the crime issue? The alternative budget is “DOA” but is shows the voters that there really is an alternative.

There is an alternative to a revolving door criminal justice system here in Maryland which puts us all at risk. It would require simple, common sense reforms many states enacted long ago and it would require the leadership of our Republican leaders to see it through and make the case.

Sadly, there is not (maybe this is a nudge, hint hint) such leadership which really is itself a crime.

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