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Lawyer to help youth fight Traffic Court fine

Lawyer to help youth fight Traffic Court fine

Unusually tough penalty may be linked to expletive 
SUN STAFF June 7, 2003: The Maryland Sun 

A law professor and former Baltimore attorney says he wants to help a White Marsh teen-ager appeal this traffic court fine, which a Judge increased from $30 to $250 after learning that the teen swore as he drove away from the ticketing officer.Matthew Bennett, who once litigated police misconduct cases in Baltimore and now teaches U.S. constitutional law in Europe, said Towson District Judge Robert E. Cahill Jr. violated 18-year-old Ryan Blacker’s free-speech rights when he raised the fine on his “failure to display license on demand” ticket.Although the judge did not explain the unusually high penalty, he imposed it after asking Blacker if it was true that he yelled, “That’s [messed] up,” as he drove away from the officer. 

When Blacker stumbled in his response, the judge fined him. 
“I don’t understand why the judge did that,” Bennett said. “What [Blacker] did goes to the heart of the First Amendment. He voiced his opinion “in whatever language he chose” about the government.” 
Blacker says he wasn’t quick to respond to the judge in the hearing May 1 because he did not remember what he yelled some five months earlier, when he was ticketed for a license on demand violation even though he found his license jammed beside the driver’s seat a few minutes later and showed it to the officer. 

Blacker now says he did yell the phrase but did not direct it at the officer.Cahill said he could not comment on his decision because of judicial ethics rules.Although he no longer practices law regularly, Bennett said he would lend his services to Blacker until the end of the summer, when he must return to Estonia to teach. 
Bennett said he wanted to take the case because it intrigued him, and “because he wanted to help out. 
“It’s very simple,” Bennett said. “You don’t punish people for the content of their speech” But other lawyers, many of whom describe Cahill as a kind and reasonable judge, disagree with Bennett’s stance. “If the kid had driven away and had screamed “Free Tibet,’ and he fined him, that would have been different,” said Owings Mills defense attorney Leonard H. Shapiro. “But I don’t think [Cahill] particularly cared what [Blacker] said. I think it was [Blacker’s] behavior.” 

In traffic court cases, judges do not have to explain why they impose a fine if it is less than $500. 
In Blacker’s hearing, even though the fine came directly after the information about the swear word, there is no way to know that language caused Ca-hill to set the high amount.But Bennett said it seems clear the fine stemmed from the swear word. And if that is the case, other constitutional law scholars agree, there may be a First Amendment issue.”I think the judge would have been within his rights to give the young man a stern lecture ‘upbraiding him for disrespecting authority,” said Jambi Raskin, a law professor at American University who wrote the book We the Students aboutteens’ constitutional rights. “But you can’t make people pay for speech because it makes one uncomfortable.” 

In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled in Cohen vs. California that Paul Robert Cohen should not have been arrested when he wore a jacket with the words “[Expletive] the draft” in a Los Angeles courthouse. Raskin said he sees similarities in Blacker’s case. “The kid was upset and he had a right to express himself,” Raskin said. “Had the kid ad-dressed the [obscenity] directly to the officer, that could have been [a constitutionally unprotected] fighting word. But his [use of the word] seems to be more of a sociopolitical observation of the event.” 
Blacker and his mother, Vicky Colfer,said they are just happy to have legal help. In the original hearing, Blacker did not have counsel. “I wouldn’t have sent him into that lion’s den without a lawyer in the first place if I’d had known what would happen,” I Colfer said. Blacker has appealed the fine, which means he will get a new hearing in Circuit Court. Bennett said he hopes Blacker’s case will be dropped before then.