When his cousin's husband was arrested for drunk driving last summer, Robert Redding, a lawyer and chairman of the Prince George's delegation to the state legislature, called the county's deputy prosecutor and asked that the charge be reduced so that it would not result in a loss of license or a jail term.
The deputy prosecutor, Joseph Sauerwein, who normally has no involvement in traffic cases, agreed to the request. He called the assistant prosecutor in charge of such cases and told him to make the change.
That assistant, Robert Harvey, who is known around the courthouse as "Attack Dog Harvey" because of the vigor with which he prosecutes, argued with Sauerwein, noting that the defendant was well above the legal standard of intoxication on the night of the arrest and that a new office policy stated clearly that charges should not be reduced when drunk driving could be proved.
But Sauerwein said to do it anyway, Harvey recalled, and "I did it because he was my boss." So Redding's relative retained his driver's license, avoided jail and got off with a $120 fine.
Incidents of that sort occur regularly in the district courts of Prince George's County. Each year, in the halls of justice at Upper Marlboro, Hyattsville and Oxon Hill, hundreds of serious traffic and misdemeanor cases are influenced by defense lawyers who have close personal or political ties to prosecutors and judges.
An investigation by The Washington Post, involving the examination of hundreds of district court cases and dozens of interviews, revealed that justice in this suburban county of 700,000 residents is often determined by an old-boy lawyer network reminiscent of the classic small-town American courthouse. Among the findings:
During the 18 months ending last Nov. 1, county prosecutors dropped charges in more than 450 serious motor vehicle cases without obtaining a guilty plea to a lesser charge. According to court records, Prince George's prosecutors drop a higher percentage of all motor vehicle cases than any other county in Maryland.
In 17 of the instances where charges were dropped, the defendants were represented by one of two influential state legislators from southern Prince George's -- Sen. Thomas V. (Mike) Miller and Del. Joseph Vallario. Miller was the attorney in nine such cases, Vallario in eight. Only two other defense attorneys in the county -- one a former prosecutor -- and at least half as many cases in which charges were dropped.
The two lawyer-politicians, and the prosecutors involved, said there were valid reasons for dropping every case. Vallario, while saying that he never exerted political influence as a lawyer in district court, added: "They know my work. If [defendants] go to 'John New Lawyer' who's been around a couple of weeks, [the prosecutors] are not going to know him and that's not going to help him."
Defense attorneys in Prince George's frequently bargain with district court judges out of court, a practice that is considered unethical in the legal profession. In one recent instance, a case had to be retried after a defense lawyer accidentally disclosed a deal he had made with the judge unbeknownst to the prosecutors.
Prominent lawyers openly arrange to argue their cases before judges they know or ones who have reputations for leniency. In one case, the district court's chief judge said he was forced to take action to prevent a defense lawyer, Richard Painter, himself a former judge, from arranging to have his cases heard by a judge widely known to be lenient, whose son, a state delegate, was once represented by Painter.
Defense lawyer regularly obtain delays in the trial date for their district court cases, hoping that key witnesses will not appear in court at a later date and their clients' charges will be reduced or dropped. Police officers, who are often the key witnesses, miss dozens of court appearances each year, forcing prosecutors to drop charges or plea bargain in cases they could otherwise have won.
At least one defense attorney, former country police chief George Panagoulis, called officers in cases handled by him or Painter, his law partner, and advised them not to appear in court in some instances, infuriating prosecutors.
Lawyers who are also legislators rank at the top of the legal pecking order in Prince George's district court. They hold several advantages over their less visible colleagues in seeking favorable treatment from judges and prosecutors.
In their traditional role as patronage dispensers, the lawyer-legislators have had a major say in the appointment of the judges before whom they regularly appear. As policy makers, they determine the number of judges in the county and set their salaries. And equally important, as lawmakers, they are the ones the judges and prosecutors must turn to for changes in the law.
Four county legislators -- Miller, Vallario, Redding, and Sen. Edward T. Conroy -- appear most frequently in district court. Of those four politicians, Vallario, the short, ruddy-faced painter's son who has made a fortune in traffic court and land settlements, is considered the preeminent court practitioner.
By his own account, Vallario argues more cases in district court than virtually any other lawyer. For every case he collects fees usually ranging from $500 to $2,000. His connections to the players on the other side of the district court system -- the prosecutors -- are deep and longstanding.
As a member of the House Judiciary Committee in Annapolis, Vallario has often introduced bills at the request of the county's chief prosecutor, Arthur A. Marshall Jr. Land records show that he and Marshall have been in land transactions together. When prosecutor Marshall's deputy, Sauerwein, was himself implicated in a drunk driving case last year, he retained Vallario as his lawyer.
According to one former assistant prosecutor in Marshall's office, Vallario has had a direct pipeline to Marshall. "If Joe has a case that he could not work out [with an assistant prosecutor]," said the former associate, who is now a defense attorney and asked to remain unidentified, "his next step -- and there was no attempt to conceal it -- was that I'm going to talk to Bud (Marshall) about this."
Marshall said, however, that, despite his friendship with Vallario, he discussed few cases with him and he gave the politican no more access to his office than any other lawyer. Added Vallario: "I do not discuss any case with [Marshall] at all. In fact, if I see him coming, and I'm holding a case jacket, I hide it under a coat."
Vallario, his colleague Miller, other court officials and court records offer varying explanations for the extraordinary number of instances when prosecutors dropped charges against defendants represented by the two southern Prince George's legislators.
Vallario and Miller, in separate interviews, offered case-by-case explanations of the actions, showing in most instances that charges had been dropped because witnesses and police officers-failed to appear in court or the state's case had one or more flaws.
In one case handled by Vallario, for example, an Upper Marlboro man was charged with drunk driving by a police office who wrote on his ticket:
"The defendant was observed. . driving with the door open. . . [He] could now locate his driver's license [which] was right in his view, and could not speak clearly. Defendant. . . urinated on police vehicle."
When it came time to try the case last September, however, prosecurtors elected to drop charges because the police officer who made the arrest had moved out of the county.
Both Miller and Vallario denied that they had any exceptional influence on the disposition of their cases. They said that they did not particularly want charges to be dropped in many cases. If they had more such cases than other lawyers, they said, it was because of the volume their offices handled and their expertise in preparing defenses.
Marshall said that "Vallario gets a tough deal out of this office." Noting that young assistants usually handled traffic cases, he added: "A majority of the people in this office don't know who Miller and Vallario are."
But that point was contradicted by Vallario, who boasted, "There are 36 lawyers in Bud Marshall's office, and there isn't one of them who doesn't know who Joe Vallario is."
It is precisely that familiarity between the two legislators and their ostensible adversaries in the prosecutor's office, according to some court officials, that explains their success in district court.
"Vallario," said one current prosecutor of traffic cases, "is like an encyclopedia salesman. He comes in and will talk your ear off. He'll cry and moan. . . We deal with him."
Vallario and Miller have another advantage in their district court dealings -- a state law that allows them automatic continuances of all cases that are scheduled during the months when the General Assembly is in session. t
Last year, a trial of a man charged with leaving the scene of an accident was delayed because Miller was the man's lawyer and the case was scheduled during the legislative session. When the case finally came to trial in August, no witnesses showed up and prosecutors were forced to drop the charge. According to Miller, his client paid the victim for damages.
The 17 cases of dropped charges involving Miller and Vallario were drawn from 290 such cases between April 1978 and November 1979 studied by The Post. Another 150 similar cases were identified, but their records could not be found in files or obtained from court officials.
The records and interviews indicated that Vallario and Miller are not the only county lawyers who appear to have easy access to court officials. More than a dozen former county prosecutors now work the district court as defense attorneys. And time after time, several court officials said, new assistant prosecutors are intimidated or outmaneuvered by this old-boy network of established defenders, most of whom are well-known and admired by the court's judges.
The advantage enjoyed by these defense attorneys can take a form as simple as a request to a judge in open court for a 'Rule One Continuance' -- a coded message meaning, "Please delay your decision because my client hasn't paid me." Many judges will comply if they know the defense attorney.
In the old days, when a lawyer went to see a judge about a case it was called "paying your respects." Jayson Amster was a rookie assistant state's attorney in district court in the early 1970s when a veteran defense attorney, Ed Conroy, "paid respects" at his expense.
One day, Amster handled several cases against Conroy's clients. According to several persons familiar with the incident, Amster refused to go along with the plea bargain proposals Conroy made. The senator responded by taking his cases to the judge's chambers.
Later, the judge delayed action on Conroy's cases and called Amster into his chambers. "Jayson," said the judge to Amster. "I know how you feel. But Ed Conroy is a very powerful politician and we have to work hand in hand with him. Sometimes you have to give a little to get a little." The judge has since retired.
Today, visits to the judge are called "missionary work." The chambers of some judges are still relatively accesible, according to lawyers, although such contacts are considered unethical by the legal profession.
Last October, for example, a district court judge had to rehear part of a case because the defense lawyer accidentally announced in open court that he had arranged a deal with the judge beforehand without the knowledge or consent of the prosecutor.
The judge involved, Sylvania Woods, a four-year veteran of the district court, recently acknowledged that the agreement was made, but he called it a "misunderstanding." The lawyer involved, Charles J. (Joe) Sullivan Jr., a former state legislator, refused to discuss the matter, saying the ease was still pending. But the official transcript shows that Sullivan informed Woods that he was entering a plea in a certain criminal case "pursuant to a conversation I had with you in chambers at noontime."
Prosecutor Pat May later protested to Woods that he had not been a part of the agreement, and Woods agreed to rehear a major portion of the case. He told the defendant only that there had been "some type of misunderstanding," and rescheduled the case for later this month.
The official court jacket made no mention of the out-of-court contact. Later, States Attorney Marshall filed a formal complaint with the head of the district court, Judge James M. Rea, requesting that in future instances, "the state. . . have the opportunity to be present."
Although Sullivan's lobbying effort backfired, other defense attorneys claim that they have had better luck.
"It's possibly to approach just about any member of the district court to set up your case," said one prominent defense attorney. "Certain suggestion are made and oftentimes do affect the outcome of the case. You plant the seed that you are looking for a certain disposition, and the rest is taken care of."
Most of the district court judges insisted in interviews that they never discuss cases with defense attorneys. They added, however, that it was difficult for them to avoid meeting with the lawyers -- many fo whom are their old friends or former law partners -- in chambers. Said Judge Francis Borelli: "They make you a judge and what they would like for you to do is forget that you ever lived."
This apparently relationship between the judge and many veteran defense lawyers frustrates some of the newer prosecutors, who feel that some of the district court judges are too inclined to be lenient toward the defense.
The judges, according to the prosecutors, issue far to many "probation before judgement" sentences, which mean that a defendant who pleads guilty does not have a judgment entered against him on the record. Instead the judge sends him to traffic school or directs him to spend one night in jail.
When Judge Borelli renders such decisions, prosecutors call it a "borelli special." Judge Woods is called the "PBJ King." And when Judge Bess B. Lavine handed down a sentence that assistant prosecutor John Dominguez in a private memo for the office file: "Somebody has got to do something about this crazy judge."
Informed of the comment made about her by the prosecutor, Judge Lavine said she was "Totally shocked," noting that the comment was unprofessional.
Judege Borelli said some of the young prosecutors are 'hot shots out of law school" who handle every case like it was a "first degree murder."
Many defense lawyers know as well as the prosecutors who the lenient judges are -- or which are their friends -- and seek them out, sometimes with tactics that the judges themselves say are improper.
One device is to obtain a district court calendar listing each judge's days for various courtrooms. The defense attorney then files early for a delay in the trial with the court clerk's office, and citing convenience, asks for a day in court when his favorite judge can hear the case.
The ease with which one veteran defense attorney, Richard Painter, used this system to seek out Judge Woods so annoyed prosecutors last year that they complained to Judge Rea, the district court's administrative chief. Rea responded by pledging to make such continuances more difficult, and said recently that he tries to personally inspect Painter's requests for continuances.
Painter, a former county judge who once represented Woods' son, state Del. Sylvania Woods Jr., in a district court case, says now that getting Woods for a case "used to be fairly easy to do, but it's harder now."
Displaying judges' calendars which he said he had obtained from Rea's office, Painter said that "most lawyers would rather go before Woods than any other judge. He's compassionate. He might be a little on the easy side."
Painter still succeeds, occasionally. Just last August, for example, for example, he argued the case of a man charged with driving while intoxicated and causing an accident involving a personal injury before Woods. The result: a probation-before-judgment sentence.
Defense lawyers, judges, and prosecutors maintain that these failures and inequities of the courts are created, in part, by the sheer volume of cases scheduled each. Each weekday morning, the judges and young assistant state's attorneys who handle the workload in upper Marlboro, Hyattsville and Oxon Hill are faced with dozens -- or even hundreds -- of cases that they must settle in the course of four or five hours.
The result is that most of them are settled even before court begins, in hurried conferences in the tiny state's attorneys' offices or in the smokey cramped hallways outside. Expediency becomes a prevailing principle. If a defendant makes a quick quilty plea on one charge, prosecutors will often drop other charges against him. A tardy witness or officer can mean a clean escape.
Officers not appearing in court for scheduled appearances is one of the principal ways in which offenders beat the system, court officials said. In many cases, the officers and prosecutors said, court officials fail to inform officers of trial dates after cases have been continued. In some cases, there are unavoidable conflicts.
One lawyer, George Panagoulis, the former county police chief, readily admits that as a defense attorney he called officers who were the state's witnesses -- and advised them not to show up for some cases, even though prosecutors describe such conduct as unethical.
Panagoulis, who said that he retired two months ago after working the last three years as a lawyer in the county, explained: "I used to do it. . . in cases where a case was not going to come up" or an officers' appearance was not necessary because of a continuance or planned plea bargain.
"It's a matter of courtesy," he said. "I'm a little closer to police work than most defense attorneys, and we're talking about saving an officer the trouble of coming to court."
Panagoulis agreed, however, with prosecutors who pointed out that judges often ask to speak with polie officers or see them in court before approving even those cases that do not go to trial.
In may instances, the officer simply elects on his own not to come. In one 1978 case, for example, a Seabrook was released from charges of driving while intoxicated and committing a hit and run on a school bus because the officer who charged him missed the court hearing.
The officer, Michael J. O'Connell, said recently that he had missed the trial because he had been upset about the shooting deaths of police officers Brian Swart and Albert Claggett, which had occurred the night before.
Even when cases are not lost, plea bargains arranged in the rush of district court often astound those unaccustomed to the system.
In on 1978 case, a Mitchellville man received eight tickets after an alleged drunk driving spree that ended with a high-speed chase through the streets of Bowie.
When his case came to court, the man agreed to plead guilty to a single charge -- eluding a police officer. In exchange, prosecutors agreed to drop all seven other tickets, including charges of driving while intoxicated, driving 95 miles per hour in a 55 zone and speeding the wrong way down a one-way street.
"The punishment was not nearly severe enough -- that guy is driving again and he is a definite menance on the highway," said police officer Raymond Kidwell, who made the arrest. "But that's the deal that his lawyer and the state's attorney worked out."
The lawyer was Emmett Nanna, a veteran defense attorney who once shared an office with Bud Marshall and helped him get started in a political career that eventually reached the office of chief prosecutor for Prince George's County.