Complaining that the practice was "gross" and "stupid," a state delegate today convinced the Maryland House Appropriations Committee that the state police should be barred from taking to the air to catch highway speeders.

Del. R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. (D-Kent) made the proposal as a budget amendment today during an otherwise routine committee work session after announcing that he was disturbed by the state police practice of painting white lines on roads, then nabbing speeders by timing them from a aircraft as they drove between the lines.

"I don't feel strongly about that many things, but I started checking on this," Mitchell explained. "I think putting a guy in one of those helicopters and letting him fly around at random should be stopped . . . particularly when we are trying to save energy in Maryland."

Helicopters were used during the early stages of the police enforcement program but have since been replaced by light planes.

The committee adopted Mitchell's amendment -- which would prevent police from spending money on the aerial enforcement effort -- by a voice vote even as some committee members noted that a major target of that effort is Rte. 50, a regular thoroughfare for legislators between Annapaolis and Washington.

"Why don't you just pay the ticket?" several committee members shouted as Mitchell argued for the provision.

"I'm innocent," Mitchell responded. "I'm not a speeder and have never had a ticket in my life."

Del. Frank Robey, who chaired the subcommittee that considered the state police budget, pleaded with the committee members not to adopt the restriction, partly because the state police had not been given the opportunity to defend the practice.

Robey also cited "rising traffic fatality rates" as a reason to retain the practice.

Mitchell, unimpressed, said the aerial program is too costly and less effective than regular highway radar.

Mitchell's amendment would have to be approved by the full House and by the Senate to force the state police to stop using aircraft to issue speeding tickets. But Mitchell seemed confident of victory when he left the committee room this afternoon.

When asked if he were leaving, he replied, "Now that I can go safely down the road, yes."