A Taneytown man who tried to sell custody of his girlfriend's son to the boy's grandfather for $4,000 violated the state's child-selling statute, the Court of Appeals has decided.
In what is believed to be the first test of whether the 1989 state law applies to custody disputes, the state's highest court last week affirmed a May 1990 Carroll Circuit Court ruling in which Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. convicted Allen F. Runkles.
In a 5-2 decision, the Court of Appeals overturned last year's Court of Special Appeals reversal of the conviction.
"We have no doubt whatsoever that when the legislature declared that a person may not sell, or offer to sell, a child for anything of value, it intended that the prohibition have a broad reach," the court said in its April 27 ruling.
The state adopted the child-selling law after charges were dropped against an Anne Arundel County couple accused of selling their child for $3,500 and three ounces of cocaine.
Before the 1989 law was enacted, the maximum penalty for child-selling was $100 and three months in jail. The new law carries a penalty of up to $10,000 and five years in jail.
In August 1989, Runkles was living with his girlfriend, JoAnn Bauerlein, on Robert's Mill Road in Taneytown. Police said he contacted Warren Seymour, the paternal grandfather of Bauerlein's 6-year-old son, and offered to persuade the child's mother to transfer custody in exchange for $4,000.
Two days later, Seymour showed up with a custody order for the mother to sign and a white envelope stuffed with the money for Runkles.
After Bauerlein signed the order, Runkles and Seymour walked out of the house and toward the garage, where Runkles handed over the custody papers and Seymour delivered the cash.
However, Runkles didn't know that the transaction was being watched by several undercover police officers, who arrested him after the exchange.
Bauerlein, who testified in court that she was "having trouble with the child and couldn't take it anymore," did not know in advance of the money exchange.
Burns convicted Runkles in May 1990 and sentenced him to five years of probation.
In its decision overturning the Court of Special Appeals ruling, the state's highest court said that the "transfer of legal and physical custody of a child for money" is prohibited under the statute.
"Runkles 'sold' the child . . . and the evidence was sufficient for the trial judge to so find," the majority said.
In a three-page dissent, Judges Robert M. Bell and John C. Eldridge agreed with the Court of Special Appeals, saying the law "does not prohibit influence peddling. That is all the record reflects [Runkles] agreed to do and did."