Did it ever occur to you, while driving around Baltimore and its environs, that respect for Maryland's traffic laws had evaporated like dry ice left out on a July afternoon? Have you ever wondered why?
For a large part of the answer, you need look no further than the District Court of Maryland.
Believe me, if you get a traffic ticket in Maryland, go to court. If your offense is severe enough, the judge might turn down your sheets and put a chocolate on your pillow.
Here's an example from a courtroom I visited recently:
Three straight cases come before a Catonsville judge. A young man going 89, another young man going 89 and a young man going 90 - all on a 55 mph stretch of the Beltway.
For going more than 30 mph over the speed limit, Maryland law provides for a $290 fine and five points against the driver's insurance record.
But this judge? He hands out assembly-line justice. Have a clean driving record, he asks? No surprise, they all say yes. OK, $100 fine, probation before judgment, three times in a row.
Isn't that tender? The young speedsters get a slap on the wrist and manage to keep the news of their risky behavior from their insurance companies. So their reckless behavior gets lumped in with the driving records of the rest of us. Insurance rates stay artificially high for drivers with clean records. You can call it Maryland's Safe Driver Tax, imposed not by the governor and the General Assembly but by District Court judges.
Just a bad day from a single judge? Hardly. Let's look at the colorful driving career of a man who made his debut as a traffic offender Oct. 9, 2001, at the age of 17. He's ticketed for going 54 in a 25 mph zone in Baltimore County. Two weeks later he's nabbed again, this time for 45 in a 25.
He fails to appear for both court appearances and his license is suspended. Finally, the next June, he pleads guilty in Catonsville to both tickets and gets two $135 fines. So far, so good.
The next year, in February 2003, this slow learner is back in court - this time in Towson over a September 2002 ticket for going 90 on the Beltway. He's found guilty and is fined $270. It seems at least one Towson judge recognizes a serious traffic offense.
In December 2002, our driver is pulled over in Baltimore for going 52 in a 30 mph zone. He bags his April 2003 court date and gets suspended again. That September he pleads guilty and is fined $135.
In March 2003, he gets busted for driving on a suspended license in Howard County. In view of his sterling record, the judge grants a PBJ and suspends $900 of his $1,000 fine.
In January 2005, our friend is ticketed for going 65 in a 35. He's eligible for a fine of $270 for exceeding the limit by 30 mph, but the kindly Catonsville judge convicts him of going 64 and lowers the penalty to $170. One week after the speeding ticket, he's pulled over for driving on a suspended registration again. He's fined $275.
Here's where it gets really fun. In October 2005, this fellow is pulled over again - this time for doing 49 in a 30 zone. Does the judge take a look at his record - more than $1,200 in fines over four years - and hammer him with the full $140 penalty? No, this is Catonsville District Court. He gets a PBJ and pays $85. He also gets a PBJ on his violation of the state's seat belt law.
Fast-forward to January 2007. The guy gets pulled over for going 80 in a 45-mph zone in Baltimore. He's eligible for a $290 fine and five well-deserved points. But what happens when he goes to city District Court?
You guessed it: a PBJ. A $175 fine with court costs.
Now probation before judgment in traffic cases isn't a bad thing. I've been the beneficiary of one. Maybe you have, too.
But giving a break to a harried soccer mom who's caught doing 45 in a 30 zone is one thing. Handing out PBJs like Halloween candy to extreme speeders and serial violators is another. No wonder cops get discouraged.
So what can we do about this? We can't vote District Court judges off the bench, and they're almost impossible to fire. All we can do is draw attention to questionable decisions.
Judges have an important role in traffic safety. They have an opportunity no one else has to get through to people - especially young drivers - that extreme and repeated misbehavior behind the wheel is no small matter. When judges abdicate that responsibility, people die. And the most likely victims are the defendants standing before them.
I would hope the judges would discuss these issues among themselves. Maybe the serious judges on the District Court could stage an intervention with some of the more notorious cream puffs.
What it might take is a cadre of retirees with some time to spare and an interest in highway safety, sitting in on traffic court sessions and taking extensive notes on who's dispensing justice and who's trying to win popularity contests. If any readers are interested in being part-time judge baby sitters, drop me a line.