Drunken driver goes free in case of double charges


ANNAPOLIS -- Prosecutor John Cox was exasperated. "You have a guy who was driving on the wrong side of the road, was drunk and killed someone and he goes free. It's incredibly frustrating."

Mr. Cox was left wondering if justice had been served after the Court of Special Appeals freed a man convicted twice in the past decade of killing someone while driving drunk because, in the most recent case, he had paid a traffic fine before criminal charges were filed.

The criminal charges that led to a five-year prison sentence amounted to double jeopardy because they were based on the same offenses for which John Charles Glasser, 37, of Stevensville, paid a $35 fine, Maryland's second highest court held.

Mr. Cox, who handled the case, said Baltimore County prosecutors knew at the time of the trial that they might have a double jeopardy problem. Police investigating fatal accidents have since been told not to issue traffic tickets that can be paid before prosecutors decide whether to press criminal charges.

Howard B. Merker, deputy state's attorney in Baltimore County, said that, to his knowledge, this is the first time in the county that a conviction has been overturned because double jeopardy was involved.

"That was fun," said Gil Cochran, the Annapolis lawyer who represented Mr. Glasser. "We wrote the check right here in my office. I knew they'd blown it."

"I think it's a matter of the law not serving justice," said Shirley Johnson, former state and Baltimore County president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "It's unfortunate; we seem to take one step forward and two steps backward."

"I'm no lawyer, but I don't see why it isn't two separate offenses; one is driving drunk and the other is manslaughter," said Ms. Johnson, who works with the victims of drunken drivers statewide.

Mr. Glasser served 20 days in the Anne Arundel County Detention Center after his first conviction in 1983 for homicide by motor vehicle while intoxicated.

In the most recent case, he was driving the wrong way on the inner loop of the Baltimore Beltway on June 30, 1989, when his car smashed head-on into one driven by Everett Jones, 30, of North Point.

Mr. Jones died from his injuries.

Baltimore County police cited Mr. Glasser, whose blood alcohol level was 0.24, for driving the wrong way on a one-way street and driving while intoxicated. (In Maryland, a level above 0.10 is considered legally drunk.) Within a month, Mr. Glasser paid the fine for driving the wrong way, and prosecutors dropped the drunken-driving charge.

But two months later, prosecutors filed charges against Mr. Glasser of automobile manslaughter and homicide by motor vehicle while intoxicated. He was convicted of manslaughter by Circuit Judge William R. Buchanan and sentenced to five years in prison.

The second prosecution was forbidden under the rules of double jeopardy, Maryland's second highest court said May 29, pointing to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a similar New York case that was issued only weeks after Glasser was sentenced last year.

In that case, the defendant paid a fine and temporarily lost his license for driving on the wrong side of the road and driving while intoxicated. Two months after the sentencing, he was indicted on manslaughter and homicide charges. But the Supreme Court ruled that the double jeopardy clause bars the second prosecution if the government has to prove again the offense for which the defendant already has been prosecuted.

In Mr. Glasser's case, prosecutors had to prove his driving was "grossly negligent" to convict him under Maryland's manslaughter by automobile statute. To do so, they noted in the statement of facts that he was driving the wrong way on the Beltway. But that was the same conduct for which he already had admitted his guilt and paid a fine, the appeals court held.

Under the dictates of the Supreme Court decision, "this procedure violated due process principles" and his conviction must be reversed, the Maryland appeals court concluded.

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