State police officials let judge off legal hook


Judging from appearances, the driver of the 1992 Buick that had just run a red light on Route 201 in Prince George's County was headed for trouble.

He ignored a state trooper who tried to pull him over, flipped on an illegal siren installed in his car and then used a security card to open the underground garage at the U.S. Courthouse in Greenbelt.

Tfc. Keith Kuhnsman realized that this might not be an open-and-shut case as he pulled his marked cruiser alongside the Buick. The driver -- U.S. Magistrate Judge James E. Kenkel -- looked annoyed and waved the trooper away. The judge drove into the garage, and the gate locked behind him.

That startling standoff occurred Jan. 19, according to state police and other witnesses. The penalties for running a red light, eluding a police officer and illegally operating a siren include fines totaling up to $1,500 and license revocation.

But Trooper Kuhnsman, 29, never directly confronted the judge. No tickets were written. No report produced.

It wasn't that Trooper Kuhnsman thought the matter should be dropped. Nor, apparently, did his boss. Barracks commander Lt. Edward Luers was described by colleagues as livid over the incident.

But senior officials of the state police took charge and let Judge Kenkel off the legal hook, sources familiar with the incident say.

Ultimately, the only thing state police did to Judge Kenkel was take away his siren.

Lt. Col. James E. Harvey, the state police's second in command, is now a little fuzzy on the details.

He says the incident wasn't such a big deal, although he did not talk directly with Trooper Kuhnsman about it until questions were raised this week. He also says he knew nothing about the judge running the red light or disobeying orders to pull over.

And while he knew Judge Kenkel used his garage pass to defy Trooper Kuhnsman, "I really never got the impression from our people that he was refusing to stop," Colonel Harvey said. "I think I got a call from someone in the judge's office saying, 'Hey, if there's a problem, we want to get it resolved.'

"Our main concern was to get the siren off the car," he said. Later, the judge sent in a copy of a bill as proof of work done to remove the siren.

Maj. Gary Cox, a regional commander with the state police, said he and others discussed whether the judge should be cited.

"But we were handling it administratively," he said. "Once they agreed to take the equipment out of the vehicle, we took no further action."

Judge Kenkel did not answer repeated telephone requests from The Sun this week to explain his run-in with the trooper. A Sun letter sent to his office describing the police account also brought no response.

But he reportedly characterized the incident to his judicial supervisors as "a misunderstanding" and said the problem had been straightened out.

"I don't think the judge got any kind of special treatment," Colonel Harvey said. "Our concern in enforcing the law is to make sure they do not continue to violate the law."

It was solely up to Trooper Kuhnsman whether Judge Kenkel should be charged, he added.

Trooper Kuhnsman, an unassuming officer with six years on the force, recalled being "perturbed" when the incident happened.

He said he understood from higher-ups that Judge Kenkel would be disciplined by the federal judges and that the siren would be removed. That was fine with him: "Warnings, whether internal or external, are often very effective."

But the chief federal judges say they made no agreements with state police to penalize Judge Kenkel. What state police did about it was their business, said Chief U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz and Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Clarence Goetz.

It was through the courthouse rumor mill, not state police, that the judges learned about the incident.

After confronting Judge Kenkel, the judges decided independently to reprimand him.

"He was told if anything close to it ever happened again, we would not tolerate it," Judge Motz said.

He said he did make one call to state police after rumors circulated that the federal judges were angry because a trooper had tried to pull over the judge. He said he called the state police superintendent, Col. David B. Mitchell, to make clear that the court believed that Judge Kenkel should receive no special treatment.

"There is nobody above the law," Judge Motz said.

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