Convictions in more than 600 cases involving everything from drunken driving to murder are at risk because a flawed county law left police with no arrest power, a Prince George's County defense attorney charges.
The claim by Suitland lawyer G. Richard Collins is now under review by a district court judge.
"Any jurisdiction that made the same mistake that was made here in P.G. County would have the same problem," Mr. Collins said. "You could have lawyers asking for all kinds of convictions to be overturned."
Attorneys for the county and state agree with that assessment, but call it "the worst case scenario." They say that Mr. Collins' argument hinges on a narrow reading of a state law that is unlikely to pass muster in court.
The case began May 10 when James Allen Wilson, a 47-year-old federal employee from Oxon Hill who was driving on a county road, allegedly swerved his car over the center line and slammed his brakes.
Officer Matthew Milbourne signaled Mr. Wilson to pull over, then charged him with driving while intoxicated.
Four months later, on Sept. 20, the defendant appeared in Hyattsville District Traffic Court. And his attorney, Mr. Collins, argued that the charge should be thrown out on grounds that the police officer -- a member of the Maryland-National Capital Park Police -- had no authority to make an arrest on a county road.
Once Officer Milbourne drove his patrol car out of the nearby state park, Mr. Collins said, his police powers ended.
Not so, objected Assistant State's Attorney Paul Benkert. Prince George's County signed a mutual aid agreement with the park police in 1988 and renewed it in 1993, authorizing both police departments to make arrests in each other's jurisdictions.
But Mr. Collins said the agreement was "fatally flawed" because the state legislature passed a law in 1992 requiring such pacts to be approved by the "governing body" of the county. And Prince George's agreements were signed by then-County Executive Parris N. Glendening -- not brought before the County Council for approval.
Thus, he said, it was void.
With that, Judge Sherrie Krauser ordered a halt to the trial and gave prosecutors 30 days to respond to Mr. Collins' claim. A new trial date has not been set, but the possible consequences of her decision are causing apprehension in law enforcement circles.
Newell Rand, commander of the park police, said his 93 officers have been making "well in excess of 200 cases a year" -- mostly traffic stops and drunken driving arrests -- on county property under the old agreement. More disturbing, he said, county detectives routinely investigate violent crimes that occur within his 25,000-acre urban park preserve outside Washington.
"As a law enforcement agency, it has to concern you that you might have that many cases in jeopardy," he said, "especially when you consider that we've had two or three murders on park property during that time that have been handled by the PG County homicide unit."
Mr. Collins, the defense attorney, said the county's aid agreement may not be the only one undermined by the 1992 state law. A ruling in his favor could affect any such pact in Maryland that was signed by a mayor, county executive or police chief without being OK'd by the local elected council.
But Richard Bury, chief assistant state's attorney for district courts, said he is confident that Judge Krauser will not allow a problem with a state statute to wreak such havoc.