Maryland laws: A gray area

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Photo Courtesy of Jason Goode

A law enforcement vehicle of the Montgomery County Police Department, a police cruiser, in Rockville Town Center.

Jason Goode, staff writer

The bars clank shut and you hang your head. As the gate swings closed behind you, the light fades. You are unaware of what will happen in your uncertain future. The hope that there was some mistake seems less and less likely as you are charged with a crime you never knew was on the books.

The legal system in America is fraught with complexities and a large volume of different rules and precedents that make it impossible to know all the laws. From laws in Baltimore County deeming it illegal to wash your sink to laws in Maryland making it illegal for a woman to sift through her sleeping husband’s pockets, there are unknown and unexplored areas of the law. On the other hand, these complexities do not give us, as members of the community, permission to ignore or even dismiss the laws haphazardly based on what we may deem as important or not. It is the obligation of the population to understand the types of laws that are both routinely or rarely enforced in order to keep the average citizen on the right side of the rules.

As seniors prepare to go to college every year, some focus on in-state schools like the University of Maryland, some strive to broaden their horizons and others strive to apply to both types of schools and decide where to go based on where they get accepted. Senior Vincent La has lived in Maryland for all 17 years of his life and is applying to both in and out of state schools. La has taken AP social studies courses and, in terms of researching particular laws, he described himself as “not particularly super interested or informed,” but he still knows what a “typical person should know,” La said.

Types of laws range from large, indisputable crimes like murder or theft to smaller crimes that are obscure, not widely known and vary from state to state. According to La, ignorance should be able to act as a defense “in some situations” because “laws in [different] states vary.” He believes that a law is meant to “prevent people from doing something ethically or morally wrong,” and its purpose is to “protect people,” La said.

Whether people agree with a law or not, it’s necessary for the community.”

— Christina Rice

Social studies teacher Christina Rice classifies herself as “moderately knowledgeable” in respect to the laws. Rice grew up in Montgomery County and currently lives in Frederick County. Rice said she believes in the importance of every law being followed. “Whether people agree with a law or not, it’s necessary for the community,” Rice said.

Agreeing with La, Rice also thinks that ignorance can act as a defense in certain situations. When introduced to Section 7-4 of the Montgomery County Code, which states that a bicycle can be impounded if it is being ridden in public without a Montgomery County Decal, Rice was worried as she has ridden bikes in Montgomery County without a displayed registration. A law requiring it is “new information to me,” Rice said.

The MCPD enforces both civil and criminal laws from a variety of sources including Maryland transportation laws, the Maryland Annotated Code and the Montgomery County Code. However, members of the community don’t need to worry about knowing every individual small ordinance and law because, according to Commander Elizabeth Hattenburg, a member of the Montgomery County Police Department for 28 years, it is, “impossible for them to know that; most attorneys don’t know that,” Hattenburg said.

Hattenburg said that some laws were not worth pursuing charges for, like jaywalking, and that it is more important to educate the public on laws than to take enforcement action. The caveat to this is when an act interferes with the quality of life of others. In addition, some laws are so small that they go out of fashion and no longer apply. For example, policies on having pagers in schools. “There are plenty of laws that have come and gone, which have no reason to be in existence anymore,” Hattenburg said.

When traveling to a new state or county, it is important to stay safe. Some resources that are available are the student government bodies or residential advisers who “have information about what is legal on their campus,” Hattenburg said. Some advice on approaching college in a safe manner are to, “make sure you go out with a buddy…know how exactly to get a hold of people,” and make sure to stay “safe,” Hattenburg said.

When introduced to some obscure Maryland laws, La thought they were “oddly specific” and some seem “ridiculous,” La said. When interacting with police officers, it is important to remember that they hold a lot of power when choosing when to enforce the law or let you off with a warning and, “an officer can decide to write you a ticket or not write you a ticket, and sometimes your attitude can make a big difference,” Hattenburg said.

Navigating the law is challenging, difficult and sometimes impossible so remember to make sure you stay as safe as you can be and remain informed as to the environments you find yourself in. Additional unusual laws can be found at patch.com and drewcochranlaw.com.