The curse of the ticketed teen

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The young law professor argued passionately for free speech and constitutional rights - becoming so animated in his objections that an irate judge ordered the lawyers into his chambers.

Baltimore County's second-ranking prosecutor calmly argued for the dignity of the state, the law and the police officers who protect it.

In the middle of yesterday's Circuit Court hearing was an 18-year-old Eagle Scout from White Marsh hoping to reduce his traffic fine.

For Ryan Blacker, the hearing was less about constitutional rights than about the chance to save money - his $30 fine had ballooned to $250 in May after a District Court judge heard that the teen swore as he drove away from the ticketing officer.

But for the lawyers, there were larger issues at stake.

"It's about protected speech," said Matthew Bennett, a Baltimore attorney who teaches U.S. constitutional law at an Estonian university. In Maryland for the summer break, he heard about Blacker's case and decided to take it for free.

"When you treat police poorly, there are going to be consequences," said Stephen Bailey, Baltimore County's deputy state's attorney. He prosecuted the case himself to show the support of the state's attorney's office for county police.

Blacker, a quiet youth with cropped red hair who yesterday looked as though he'd rather be anywhere but in court, started this debate early Dec. 24.

He was driving home from his job at the White Marsh Olive Garden restaurant when Officer Stephen Myers pulled him over for a broken taillight. He could not find his license, so Meyers wrote him a $30 ticket for "failure to produce license on demand."

Before Myers drove off, Blacker found his license wedged beside the driver's seat. He showed it to Myers, but the officer told him it was too late: Blacker could fight the ticket in court.

As Blacker drove away, he yelled his discontent. That would cause him problems.

At his District Court hearing in May, Judge Robert E. Cahill Jr. asked Myers whether Blacker was "polite and courteous."

"Other than when he pulled away and screamed, 'That's [messed] up' twice out the window," the officer answered.

When Blacker stammered that he did not know what he yelled, the judge cut him off and set the fine at $250 plus $23 in court costs.

Later, Blacker said he did yell the phrase, but not at the officer. He said he truly did not remember when Cahill asked him about it.

Blacker's mother, who had encouraged her son to fight the ticket, paid $80 to appeal to Circuit Court. So yesterday, Blacker was back in a courtroom.

His lawyer, Bennett, was armed with citations of First Amendment case law. Bailey stood without notes at the prosecutor's table. Watching them were a smattering of defendants awaiting their own trials.

Bailey argued that the judge should consider Blacker's swearing and keep the lower court's hefty fine. How someone treats a police officer is pertinent information, he said.

"It is a fact and circumstance the court takes into opinion all the time," Bailey said.

But Bennett's objections came early and often. He argued that a judge could not penalize someone for voicing an opinion to a police officer or any other authority.

"If you do increase the fine based on what you say, it has a chilling effect on free speech," he said, rushing to mention the case law. And he kept arguing, even as Baltimore County Circuit Judge John O. Hennegan tried to step in.

"If you would take two seconds and listen to me, you wouldn't have any problems with what I'm going to do," Hennegan finally bellowed.

The judge called a recess and ordered the lawyers into chambers. Observers looked at each other and snickered. Blacker dropped his head in his hands.

After the judge, Bailey and a chastised Bennett came back into the courtroom, Hennegan gave his decision. He said he would consider Blacker's swearing, as Bailey had asked. He also said he would consider Blacker's youth and earlier politeness.

With some kind words for police officers, the judge set the ticket back to $30.

"We're happy," Bennett said after the hearing. "We wanted the fine reduced."

Bailey said he was content with the ruling, as well. "All I wanted to do was make sure people understand that the judge can consider the conduct toward an officer," he said, deriding the constitutional claim. "As long as that's the message that comes from this case, I'm satisfied."

And Blacker is right where he was in December. Minus his mother's $80 for the appeal.

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