SALISBURY — Once a month, prosecutor Christopher Romano sets aside a hefty caseload of drug and gang cases and heads across the Bay Bridge to a remote outpost of the federal court on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Here the government’s witnesses are park rangers in short-sleeved khaki shirts and boots instead of FBI agents in suits. The victims are wild ponies, Canada geese and piping plovers. And the list of defendants may include topless sunbathers.
Overseeing it all is a part-time judge, a local defense attorney and surfer who walks the two blocks from his law office with his black robe draped over one arm.
The atmosphere in the courtroom, tucked into a red-brick U.S. post office, may be more casual and collegial than in the U.S. District courthouses in Greenbelt and Baltimore, but the stakes are significant: protecting some of the region’s most treasured wildlife and federal land like Assateague Island National Seashore and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
“Don’t mistake lack of formality with lack of seriousness,” said Romano, an assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore who views the assignment — known as the duck docket — as a welcome respite from the violent crimes he typically handles.
Earlier this year, the courtroom on the shore was targeted for possible closure as a cost-saving measure. But Maryland’s Chief District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow adamantly opposed the recommendation, calling it a major inconvenience for the state’s far-flung rural residents. The court appears to have been spared, and Chasanow said in a recent interview that it is no longer on the closure list being considered by the Judicial Conference, the policymaking body for the U.S. court system.
A recently retired magistrate judge, Victor H. Laws III, spent more than two decades presiding over his share of memorable cases inside the post office decorated with 1930s murals. There was the accidental poisoning of bald eagles by a farmer trying to rid a chicken coop of predatory foxes, a case involving the autopsy of a goose to determine whether it was killed with illegal lead shot and the initial coverup of an accidental shooting of a wild horse by a father and son during a deer hunt on Assateague last year.
All the cases, heard the second Friday of each month, are misdemeanors and decided without juries. Some, like the horse shooting, carry hefty fines and hunting bans. Others are more mundane offenses that don’t involve wildlife, such as speeding or underage drinking by college students partying on the beach.
Many cases are worked out informally by the park rangers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers, the prosecutor and Baltimore-based federal public defender Franklin Draper, who huddle in the courtroom before the monthly session begins.
It was one of those measly $25 fines that led to what is probably the most well-known opinion of Laws’s 24-year tenure. Laws, who grew up in Salisbury and studied philosophy at Brown University, blushed a bit when he brought up his precedent-setting case on public nudity.
In 1989, Laws found a young woman guilty of violating indecency regulations for removing her bikini top to get some “extra sun,” she testified, while walking the beach in Chincoteague with a male companion. The U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the conviction, rejecting the woman’s assertion that the decision violated her constitutional rights to equal protection and privacy.
Although one appellate judge expressed hope in his concurring opinion that such an act might one day be considered “too trifling” to police, Laws’s decision has since guided enforcement in the federal parks.
Laws’s successor, C. Bruce Anderson, was on the bench this month with his distinctive booming voice and pineapple-print tie. The nephew of a former chief magistrate judge in Baltimore, Anderson is intimately familiar with some of the federal land under the court’s jurisdiction from his triathlon-training bike rides on Assateague.
He handed out a $640 fine to a Cambridge taxidermist in flip-flops who failed to properly report the 40-pound deer he shot during a bow hunt. A local electrician pleaded guilty to carrying more than the bag limit of Canada geese from a blind near Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge — and without a valid hunting stamp.
“I didn’t argue. It was pretty dumb,” said Zachary Webb, 26, after agreeing to pay the $420 fine.
Even when defendants come prepared to plead guilty and settle up, many want an opportunity to explain their actions. That was the initial plan for Leslie Dykhouse, who was cited for getting too close to a wild horse during her family’s annual visit to Assateague.
Dykhouse, a Centreville radiology technologist, grew up reading Misty of Chincoteague books and displays a picture of the famous ponies on her phone. This spring she immediately noticed a sign warning visitors to stay at least 10 feet away from the horses.
But then, Dykhouse said, she found herself on the road waiting behind another car as a pony ambled up to her vehicle, leaving little space to maneuver.
“You can’t stop it if the pony is walking along the side of the road,” she said. “It’s safer to let the pony pass you.”
The park ranger who stopped her saw it differently, telling Dykhouse that she could have steered out of the way, she recalled. He issued a citation.
Dykhouse drove three and a half hours to appear in court this month, armed with 8-by-10 photos showing the pony in question at the window of her sedan. After consulting with Anderson and the prosecutor about her options, Dykhouse decided not to enter a plea and to return another day.
The fine for her alleged offense is $150. She’ll end up paying much more in gas and hotel rooms, she said.
“I don’t really want to come back,” Dykhouse said. “But I don’t want to plead guilty.”