As a Maryland Criminal Lawyer/Attorney I often counsel people that they must ” win the race to the courthouse”. What I mean by that is very often inexperienced or inept prosecutors will reflexively side with whomever earns the title “victim” (actually it is really complaining witness) by winning the race to the courthouse to file charges. The typical example is a bar fight or an altercation at some other location that is broken up or otherwise ceases prior to police arriving on the scene. Unless a weapon was used or someone was seriously injured, the police do not have the legal authority to make an arrest. This is because without a weapon or serious injury the only crime would that could be charged is second degree assault which is a misdemeanor in Maryland. The police can only arrest in misdemeanor cases if they actually witness the events. Otherwise, the police are supposed to simply write a report and advise the combatants as to the procedures for filing charges against one another.
I had a case like this in Carroll County earlier this week. The facts were that our client was riding his motorcycle and he got caught behind a slow moving tractor trailer. He rode behind the truck for between 2 to 3 miles and a line of cars developed behind my client. Although there were several places where the driver of the truck could have moved partially onto the shoulder to allow our client and the other cars to pass, he never did so. Needless to say, our client began to get impatient.
According to the client, they came upon a part of the road that was slightly wider than what they had previously travelled and the truck was hugging the double yellow line dividing traffic. My client decided to make his move so he accelerated and began to pass the truck on the right hand side on the shoulder, admittedly not the smartest decision. At this point the trucker swerved back to the right in what my client believed was a deliberate act and struck his motorcycle causing him to go completely off the roadway and crash into a field. My client was bumped and bruised but luckily he was not seriously injured.
To my client’s great surprise the trucker stopped his vehicle at the scene. Understandably angry, my client jumped up on the cab and was yelling at the driver to exit the vehicle. The driver refused to do so. Ultimately, my client grabbed a flashlight and smashed the driver’s side window of the truck (again, not the smartest decision he ever made). The driver was showered with glass but he was not struck or injured in any way.
In this case my client lost the race to the courthouse but not in the way it normally happens that I described above. As I said, the police are only allowed to arrest for misdemeanors that occur in their presence, which was clearly not the case in this situation. Unfortunately, not all police officers understand the law. The police in this case did not, so in spite of the fact that only misdemeanors were alleged to have been committed by my client, they arrested him. He was charged with second degree assault and malicious destruction of property, both misdemeanors.
Still, he was in the same situation as he would have been had the police just written a report and the truck driver had charged him. The other interesting fact is that even though he was illegally arrested and charged in this case, this is not grounds for dismissal of charges. The remedy for being illegally arrested is suppression of any evidence that was recovered as a result of the illegal arrest. If for instance my client had made a statement or had drugs in his pocket at the time of his arrest (he didn’t), this evidence would not be allowed to be introduced against him at his trial but the illegal arrest does not nullify the charges.
Prior to appearing in court we attempted to contact the two witnesses who were listed in the police report. We were able to reach just one of the two and when we asked her what happened she told almost verbatim the same story that our client told to include that the trucker had intentionally run him off the road. Ordinarily, we would have immediately instructed the client to go ahead and charge the trucker with both misdemeanor and felony theft or even attempted murder if the commissioner would issue the charge, as he easily could have been killed by the trucker’s act of intentionally running him off of the road. Two factors weighed against doing that in this instance. The first factor was that our client waited until just a few days prior to the first trial date to contact us. The second was that the trucker was from Indiana and was therefore likely not to appear in court. Also, my client really wanted to just put this behind him and would have been happy to simply have the case dismissed.
When we got to court we learned that the trucker was present. I introduced the prosecutor to the independent witness whom she (the prosecutor) had never bothered to contact. In spite of the fact that the witness confirmed that it appeared to her that the trucker had intentionally ran my client off the road the prosecutor stated her intention to not only prosecute my client but to recommend jail!! I pointed out that my client could have been killed by the trucker’s action and that this was, in my opinion, far more serious than a broken window. True to form though, the young and inexperienced prosecutor told me that she “believed her victim” and was not swayed by the independent witness.
At this point we were left with no choice but to postpone the case (actually we had to remove it to the Circuit Court). My client went straight to the commissioner’s office to charge the trucker. Hopefully we will get a more experienced prosecutor on the next trial date who will be able to look past the fact that the trucker earned the designation “victim” first and more objectively evaluate the facts in their totality but this case does indeed demonstrate the need to win the race to the courthouse.
I will update this blog when this case is resolved.