- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 5, 2005

If you live, work or commute in the Rockville or Gaithersburg areas of Montgomery County, chances are there are plenty of times when you go out in the evening and witness behavior that looks suspicious. Perhaps the the police should take a closer look at the shabbily dressed people (of all races and ethnic backgrounds) who are furtively exchanging money (for heaven knows what ) near the Twinbrook, Rockville or Shady Grove Metro stations. Perhaps it is the aimless-looking youths or middle-age vagrants you see outside one of the supermarkets on Rockville Pike, who watch people come and go to the money machines. Or perhaps you witness dangerous driving, like the lunatics careening through traffic on nearby Interstate 270 at 90 mph, tailgating and weaving from lane to lane. “Where the police when you really need them?”

We know where the Maryland State Police were Wednesday night — on Rockville’s Route 355, where troopers from the Rockville Barracks had blocked off one lane of the highway. Using night-vision goggles, police parked on the side of the road spent three hours peering into vehicles traveling down Route 355.

They weren’t searching for drugs, guns or other contraband. Instead, they were looking to see whether drivers and passengers were wearing their seat belts. By the time the evening was over, police had issued 111 seat-belt citations As for the night-vision goggles, which are ordinarily used to enable soldiers to carry out combat operations after dark, a state police spokesman said they were needed in order to “actually see inside the car and see whether they have their seat belt on.” The troopers issuing the tickets were working overtime as part of a state police “pilot” program aimed at improving enforcement of Maryland vehicle-safety laws.

Clearly, seat-belt use makes people safer in most kinds of accidents, and use of the belts is a practice that ought to be encouraged through the public-safety announcements and the like. Reasonable people can disagree over the need to have the government pass laws to require usage of seat belts by adults. But it is ludicrous to treat violations of seat-belt laws as the equivalent of major criminal investigations.

We believe that Gov. Robert Ehrlich understands these distinctions. In the wake of a deluge of angry telephone calls and emails to Baltimore talk-radio stations protesting the Rockville debacle, Mr. Ehrlich (who says he was not informed in advance that the state police planned to employ night-vision equipment to target non-users of seat belts) has been sharply critical of the actions of the Maryland State Police. The governor is also said to have made his displeasure known to Col. Thomas Hutchins, who he appointed superintendent of the state police in December 2003. Mr. Hutchins, a former member of the House of Delegates who spent more than two decades in the state police until his retirement in 1994, should have used better judgement.

When he addresses the subject further today, Mr. Ehrlich is expected to make clear that there will not be a repetition of Wednesday’s events on his watch. That’s very welcome news indeed.

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