County sheriff is obliged to keep laws he enforces


HAVE THEY found the smoking gun of Carroll County Sheriff John Brown? I mean to say, the smoking cigarette butt.

Whether a reliable witness caught the chain-smoking constable in the inflammatory act or not, Mr. Brown admits to lighting up recently in his county-owned, nonsmoking office.

The county's chief cop pleads the same excuse that judges have long rejected -- ignorance of the law. (That jurisprudential maxim may be shortened in this case to solely "ignorance.")

But how much more blatant could it be when the sheriff says he put up the nonsmoking signs at the county detention center, where his office is located? And he didn't think the law applied to him?

Besides, Mr. Brown said, he hadn't smoked in the office for several weeks before the state workplace agency cited him for the violation. Another long-discredited alibi, as in "I haven't killed anyone in the past week, so I'm innocent."

As always, Mr. Brown accuses his accusers of playing politics.

It's another example of the former Baltimore gendarme trying to dodge responsibility for his flamboyant actions. Enforcement of state and county law is a mere political act?

One recalls, wincing, that this sheriff recently charged the county commissioners with being "soft on crime" when they made him obey the law and apply for a building permit for his planned tent-city inmate annex.

Turns out that was a legitimate request for the project. The state fire marshal found serious safety defects in the plan, which Mr. Brown has said he will abandon.

The sheriff of Marlboro from time to time has reminded the citizenry that his is an elected state office, in contrast to the county offices. Still, he's beholden to Carroll County and to the commissioners for the money to operate his office and the county jail. Those activities are located in county buildings, the same buildings that the commissioners declared "no smoking" facilities.

Violating state law

But it's not the county law that the lawman is accused of breaking. It's the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health code that forbids smoking in workplace buildings, a ban that's been around for three years now. A complaint against the sheriff is being investigated by MOSH.

Compounding this allegation are the accounts of others who say they have seen Mr. Brown firing up a cigarette and puffing away in the office. He was apparently captured on film in one case by a Sun photographer taking his picture for an unrelated article.

Regardless of what MOSH determines, the effect on Mr. Brown will be inconsequential. As a rule, MOSH doesn't fine county or state agencies for confirmed violations. A letter of citation is issued, and that's that.

In any case, the citation is issued to the employer for failing to observe the law in that workplace, not the individual violator.

So the county commissioners could receive the MOSH citation for Mr. Brown's action. They control the building where the infraction allegedly occurred, and they pay for the office's activities. It's their duty to maintain a safe, healthy workplace -- one that bans smoking.

Delicious irony

Wouldn't the sheriff relish that turn of events! What deliciously satisfying irony to see the promoters of the nonsmoking policy in county buildings be cited for violating it. In his re-election campaign, Mr. Brown could accuse those county busybodies of being "soft on smoking."

Of course, the state agency could decide that Mr. Brown, as an independently elected state official, is the employer of record.

That would be more deserved, but with the same lack of practical impact.

Regardless of what he thinks of the state code and county ordinance, Sheriff Brown is sworn to obey and enforce the laws.

We'll await an official verdict on the specific case, but the flamboyant peace officer is now on notice to stop any smoking in his workplaces.

It's easy to make light of the case, to dismiss the charge as an abridgment of individual choice and individual consequence. But that's not the case.

In his eighth decade and hearty enough to sustain the rigors of public office, Sheriff Brown is not in apparent risk of ill health that would render him a drain on public medical resources. His individual health is not the issue.

Rather, it is the protection of the workplace from smoking. Visitors and employees are prohibited from smoking in county buildings.

There's the secondhand-smoke health effect as one argument for the ban. There's also the extreme discomfort of many nonsmokers with the penetrating tobacco odor. And the temptation to former smokers to resume their addictive habit.

There are places where people may continue to smoke: The automobile seems to be a prime site.

Like the speed limits for those vehicles, the law banning smoking in public buildings and workplaces has to be upheld by law officers such as Sheriff Brown.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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