BACK in 1983, a tiny Delaware town faced potential bankruptcy because a local cop tried to arrest a motorist for speeding.
Trouble was, the gun-toting officer was outside his municipal limits, and his target was a Maryland lawyer with a keen eye for legal damages.
The lawyer sued for harassment, illegal arrest and so forth and put the burg of Fenwick Island in a pickle when he won a $130,000 judgment awarded by a federal jury. The amount was more than the town was worth, its attorney argued.
The award eventually was set aside by a judge and the resort town remained solvent for the time being.
The lawyer later got his own comeuppance in other notorious, unrelated affairs, but that's another story. So is the tale of rural Delaware speed traps.
But the incident helps point out that things can get a lot worse than simply having a court case dismissed because of lack of jurisdictional authority.
It was that lack of legal jurisdiction in a recent drunken driving case in Taneytown that prompted the municipalities to seek the protection of the Carroll County sheriff.
The charges placed by the arresting officer were thrown out of court: The suspect exceeded the blood-alcohol limits, but the lawman exceeded the town's limits.
The charges would have stood up if the local cop had detained the accused motorist outside town for the arrival of a sheriff's deputy or a Maryland State Police trooper, both of whose agencies have arrest and charging authority in the entire county.
And if the town officer had been properly deputized by the sheriff, he could have acted alone.
According to Sheriff Kenneth L. Tregoning, some 60 municipal officers in Carroll could be deputized by his office to legitimately extend their authority and provide mutual aid to other law enforcement representatives. Frederick and Charles county sheriffs already deputize local cops.
Ah, but there's the problem of liability and few other legal niceties that need to be worked out.
It's not like the Old West in the movies, where the sheriff strides into the saloon, tosses a tin badge onto the poker table and announces: "I'm a-deputizing yah, and yer not sayin' no."
That's why Sheriff Tregoning was meeting with the county's municipal police chiefs last week to consider an air-tight plan. Yes, the lawyers and the government insurance i-dotters were there, too.
The result is that Carroll will seek state legislation permitting Mr. Tregoning to deputize the local officers, and the towns will adopt new agreements with the county dealing with extraterritorial authority.
Officers from the five town police departments already back up sheriff's deputies and state troopers, when they are requested.
But that is different from being allowed to take action and make arrests independently outside the municipal boundaries.
The intent is not to create a wide-ranging authority for every local officer. The authority would be for emergencies and matters of public endangerment, not for minor traffic violations. With irregular town borders and calls for assistance from citizens who can't be expected to research the official boundary lines, local police respond to incidents outside the towns.
But the localities need the clarification and agreement to do their jobs to the letter of the law, for their own protection and for the protection of the citizenry.
Besides, the local officers can be tied up for some time waiting for the arrival of an officer with arresting authority so that the paperwork can be properly completed.
Sykesville was the first town to ask last year for a strengthened agreement with the county on mutual aid and back-up authority. Westminster soon followed suit.
The county commissioners indicate no problem with extending the mutual aid agreement, as long as no liability issues remain. The Local Government Insurance Trust, which is the Maryland municipalities' insurance fund, is investigating those matters.
While the sheriff's office would be the proper place for deputizing the local police officers, the county's primary law enforcement agency consists of the 49 state resident troopers assigned to the Westminster barracks. Carroll is the only Maryland county that contracts with the state police for its police force. That agreement stretches back to 1974.
Three of Carroll's incorporated towns also contract for use of these "resident troopers" as their local policing authority. The other five municipalities hire their own police officers.
The local police, sheriff and state police already meet regularly to coordinate their activities. The extended mutual aid agreement with the county would further that existing program of cooperation.
Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.