Thursday, October 29, 2009

LA PLATA, Md. | A Maryland judge apologized Wednesday for engaging in a bit of vigilante justice when he let the air out of the tire of a courthouse employee who parked in a restricted area.

After pleading guilty in the courthouse where he usually presides, Charles County Circuit Judge Robert C. Nalley was given a $500 fine for tampering with a vehicle and ordered to write a private “heartfelt letter of apology” to Jean Washington, the woman whose tire he deflated. A visiting judge also sentenced Judge Nalley to probation before judgment, meaning the conviction won’t appear on his record.

“Your honor, I’m profoundly sorry for this conduct,” Judge Nalley, 66, told Anne Arundel County District Judge Robert C. Wilcox. “I’m ashamed of the conduct and embarrassed for the community and for my family.”

Judge Nalley’s lawyer, William Brennan, said the judge understands his actions could have been dangerous if Ms. Washington had driven off with a flat tire. A courthouse employee saw Judge Nalley let the air out and alerted Ms. Washington. A police officer helped her inflate the tire.

Judge Wilcox, the visiting judge, said Judge Nalley’s crime was similar to “90 percent of the cases in district court.”

“They are grounded more on a foolish moment than any black heart or devious intent,” he said.

It’s still unclear what the incident will mean professionally for Judge Nalley, who has been a jurist since 1980. After the Aug. 10 incident, he stepped down as the court’s chief administrative judge and has been suspended from hearing criminal cases, though he continues to preside over civil matters.

That suspension will continue until the state Commission on Judicial Disabilities decides whether Judge Nalley should face sanctions, said William D. Missouri, the chief judge for Maryland’s 7th Circuit, which includes Charles County.

Judge Missouri said Judge Nalley’s infraction was serious even though it was a misdemeanor.

“If you look at it as a breach of public trust, it’s a major crime because you have a judge admitting to doing something that one would have thought we’d outgrown in high school,” he said.

Ms. Washington, who attended Wednesday’s hearing but did not speak, has said she didn’t realize she was not allowed to park on the side street by the courthouse in downtown La Plata, a distant suburb of Washington. She typically parked there when she arrived for her 3 p.m. shift at the courthouse - her second job - because she left the building after dark, said John Maloney, a deputy state’s attorney from Montgomery County. Mr. Maloney handled the case because local prosecutors had a potential conflict of interest.

“She’s a hardworking woman,” Mr. Maloney said. “To her credit, she’s a very forgiving woman.”

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