Prince George’s council member Karen Toles gets probation before judgment

June 20, 2012

The Prince George’s County Council member who police said was driving more than 100 mph on the Capital Beltway this year was given probation before judgment Wednesday on a reckless driving charge, allowing her to avoid points on her driver’s license after a nearly two-hour trial.

Karen R. Toles (D-Suitland) could have lost her license had she been convicted of reckless driving without any caveats for the now-infamous Feb. 22 incident. But after her attorney said that she had already completed a driver improvement course, visiting Anne Arundel District Court Judge Megan Johnson gave Toles probation before judgment — an outcome that allows her to pay a $402 fine plus $33 in court costs but avoid a possible six points on her license.

Those points would have pushed the council member’s total above eight and initiated the process to suspend her driving privileges, court and state motor vehicle records show. In the context of the dozens of traffic cases heard in Prince George’s County District Court on Wednesday, the result was similar to that of other cases.

Earlier in the day, Johnson granted probation before judgment, in which the matter is not treated as a conviction, to a dump-truck driver charged with reckless driving and involved in a three-
vehicle crash. She allowed the same outcome to several people ticketed for lesser offenses. After the trial, state’s attorney’s spokesman John Erzen said prosecutors were satisfied with the outcome.

“As of now, she’s been held accountable,” Erzen said. “The sentence, if you will, that’s up to the court to decide how to do that.”

As they left the courtroom, Toles and her attorney declined to comment.

Toles, who has repeatedly apologized for the incident, still might suffer politically. For the first time, Prince George’s police Cpl. Joseph Brooks, who initially tried to pull Toles over on the Beltway, testified publicly about how he watched the council member wedge her Ford Edge between two other vehicles, forcing one to slam on its brakes and swerve into another lane. Cruiser camera videos that were played in court showed Toles speeding away from a red light even as Brooks came up behind her with his lights and sirens on.

Toles did not offer her own version of events. She testified briefly about a police lieutenant’s questioning of her after she had stopped and only to say she felt she was not free to leave.

Rosalyn Pugh, Toles’s defense attorney, argued against the charges largely on technical grounds. She first moved they be thrown out on double-jeopardy concerns because Toles had already paid an unsafe lane change ticket stemming from the incident. Johnson rejected those arguments. Pugh then argued that prosecutors had not proved Toles’s conduct rose to the level of “willful” and “wanton” disregard for public safety. Johnson, too, rejected those arguments.

Brooks testified that he spotted Toles’s county-issued sport-utility vehicle traveling on the Beltway, weaving around other traffic. As he turned on his lights and sirens and followed Toles, his cruiser’s in-car camera — which he acknowledged was not recently calibrated — showed him reaching speeds as high as 108 mph.

Brooks caught up to Toles’s vehicle as it stopped at a red light on Branch Avenue, but she drove away. She did not stop until another Prince George’s officer, Cpl. Steven Geer, pulled alongside her, according to Geer and Brooks.

Brooks and Geer testified that they approached the council member’s car with their guns drawn — not knowing who might await them inside.

Later, Brooks testified, Toles identified herself as a council member and said she did not notice pursuing officers because she was on the phone and checking e-mails. Brooks said Toles told him that her rearview mirror was turned in such a way that she could not see behind her because she had earlier been applying makeup.

Geer testified that the Toles was emotional and said of the police, “This is why people don’t like P.G.”

At the time, Brooks cited Toles only for making an unsafe lane change. On March 6 — after commanders and others reviewed the incident — police issued the the reckless driving ticket, saying the “totality of the circumstances” led them to file the additional charge.Prosecutor Sam Danai said Toles’s driving — and her explanation — were enough to indicate a clear disregard for public safety.

“Why didn’t she pull over? She was on the phone. She was putting on makeup,” Danai said in court. “She had no care or concern for what was going on.”

Pugh argued in court that the charges came “because of public pressure, because of the public outcry they have somehow solicited.” After the hearing, Prince George’s Police Chief Mark Magaw disputed that notion. He said that he expected the police’s “cooperation” on other matters with Toles, who has been an advocate for public safety legislation including a recently enacted gun-offender registry, would continue.

Matt Zapotosky covers the federal district courthouse in Alexandria, where he tries to break news from a windowless office in which he is not allowed to bring his cell phone.
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