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Court of Special Appeals Reverses Criminal Harassment Conviction in “Weird” Case

Maryland criminal law is fairly complex. There are a dizzying number of state and federal statutes defining specific criminal acts. Oftentimes, it is not clear whether a person has actually violated the law based on the plain language of the statute–and even judges may disagree as to how to interpret the law.

A recent unreported decision from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, Koenick v. State, is a case in point. Indeed, one of the three judges who decided this case deemed the entire matter “weird” and somewhat “mysterious.”

For sure, the defendant in this case was not your typical hardened criminal. She was a 77-year-old woman living in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Her home was located near a public elementary school.

For some reason, the defendant had a bone to pick with the school. It is never explained in the appellate record what the defendant’s issue was with the school. In any event, prosecutors alleged that the defendant “embarked on a course of conduct designed to disrupt the operations of the school” over a one-month period. The defendant allegedly “obstructed” the passage of school buses picking up children.

On another occasion she “impeded access to the school grounds during a school festival by giving popsicles to children as they entered the school grounds.” This incident–the reasons for which, again, are not explained in the court record–prompted police to arrest the defendant.

Prosecutors subsequently charged the defendant with a staggering 21 criminal offenses. She was ultimately found guilty of just three charges–one count of criminal harassment and two counts of hindering school bus drivers in the performance of their duties.

A divided three-judge panel of the Court of Special Appeals threw out the harassment conviction and ordered a new trial on hindering the bus drivers. With respect to the latter charges, the appellate court said the trial judge erred in not granting the defendant’s request to try those charges separately, since they allegedly occurred on a different day than the alleged harassment.

As for the harassment charge, the issue here was how the statute defined the crime. Under Maryland law, a person commits a crime if they “follow another in or about a public place and maliciously engage[s] in a course of action that alarms or seriously annoys the other.” The use of “other” here means that the victim of the harassment must be a “person” like the defendant.

In this case, prosecutors argued the “person” that the defendant harassed was the Montgomery County Board of Education, which operated the school. Now, a business corporation or similar entity can be considered a legal “person.” But here, the Court of Special Appeals said the Board of Education was not a legal person. The reason was simple: The term “person” does not include any governmental entity or unit, such as a board of education. Therefore the defendant did not break the law as she did not harass a natural or legal person.

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