ANNAPOLIS, APRIL 27 -- A man convicted of having oral sex with a Wheaton woman asked Maryland's highest court today to overturn the verdict on the grounds that his privacy was unconstitutionally invaded.
In arguments before the Maryland Court of Appeals, the lawyer for Steven Adam Schochet, 28, of Montgomery County, said that a 74-year-old state law prohibiting "unnatural and perverted sexual practices" cannot constitutionally be applied to "non-commercial, consensual. . . intimacies between heterosexual adults in private."
But Assistant Attorney General Gary E. Bair argued on behalf of the state that the U.S. Supreme Court has extended the privacy right in all sexual matters only to married couples and has recognized that right for others only when they engage in behavior related to "family planning and procreation," not oral sex. For that reason, he said, Schochet's conviction should be upheld.
Schochet originally also was charged with rape and sodomy. A Montgomery County Circuit Court jury deliberated for half an hour before acquitting him of all charges of forced sexual relations. However, it found him guilty of engaging in consensual fellatio.
Today, Schochet's lawyer, Joseph P. Suntum, said the verdict resulted from the presiding judge's refusal to go along with his contention that mutual consent was a valid defense for "perverted" practices. For that reason, Suntum argued, Schochet's 1987 conviction should be overturned. Schochet was sentenced to five years' probation.
"It is not that we are arguing that everyone has a fundamental right to engage in oral sex. What they have is a fundamental right to privacy, especially in a relationship with someone of the opposite sex," Suntum told the court. "Whether that relationship goes fast or slow. . . it cannot grow with government intrusion."
Bair said, "I am not here today to defend the wisdom of this law." He added, however, that its critics should direct their complaints to the state legislature, which repeatedly has refused to repeal the perversion law and a related anti-sodomy statute.
The perversion law bars oral sex and sex with animals.
Despite the endurance of those laws, Schochet, 28, is thought to be the first person in Maryland history to be prosecuted for a sexual act in private with a consenting adult who was not paid for it, according to testimony today.
Schochet's conviction resulted from a bizarre series of events that began when he knocked on the door of a woman he had never met, either seeking to use the telephone or looking for a friend.
He was invited inside, where he and the woman engaged in fellatio and vaginal intercourse. He left the next morning.
Ironically, it was he who telephoned Montgomery County police later that day after he became angry at the woman. As an act of revenge, he falsely reported that she had abused her 11-year-old daughter and was selling PCP. When the police showed up at her apartment, the woman told the police that Schochet had raped her and forced her to participate in fellatio.
The jury's verdict came at the end of a two-day trial. After hearing that verdict Circuit Judge Irma S. Raker considered dismissing the case, saying the jurors clearly "believe the acts were consensual."
But after learning that Schochet repeatedly had been hospitalized for a mental illness, Raker sentenced him to five years' imprisonment with all but 18 months suspended.
She later reduced the penalty to supervised probation. Maryland's intermediate appellate court upheld the conviction and sentence.
Once the case reached the state's highest court, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a "friend of the court" brief, arguing that if the court sides with Schochet, as the ACLU contends it should, the court also must extend the right to privacy to homosexual relationships.
The Maryland Psychological Association and four research groups that study human sexuality also filed a brief in the case defending oral sex as a healthy activity that more than 90 percent of American heterosexual couples engage in regularly.
The Court of Appeals originally heard arguments in the Schochet case in January 1989, but summoned lawyers for the two sides for more testimony today.
Rearguments are rare in the court, and lawyers in the case interpreted the court's action as a sign that the seven judges are divided.
During today's arguments, Judge John C. Eldridge seemed to ridicule Bair's argument that because cases such as Schochet's are unusual, the perversion law does not need to be overturned.
"They may start, if you win this one, having bedroom raids and all sorts of things if you have a reliable informant on what's going on in a couple's bedroom at night," Eldridge said.