Montgomery Judge Acquitted In Ticket-Tampering Case

Montgomery County District Court Judge Jerry Hyatt, a former Maryland legislator, was acquitted yesterday of charges that he illegally dismissed a traffic citation last summer issued to a court employee who was a social acquaintance.

Hyatt, who testified that he had helped the woman find legal help and later dismissed the charge at the recommendation of an assistant state’s attorney, had been indicted Dec. 17 on charges of obstruction of justice, conspiracy and misconduct in office.

The decision, handed down by a retired Maryland Court of Special Appeals judge brought in to hear the case in Montgomery Circuit Court, was loudly applauded by friends of Hyatt and courthouse workers. They had packed the court during the two-day trial and jumped to their feet with cheers at its conclusion.

“I’ve learned a lot about things I probably wouldn’t have,” said an ebullient Hyatt, 47, as he accepted congratulations and hugs afterward. “I’ve learned about speedy trial, I’ve learned about malicious prosecution, I’ve learned about slander. I know what it is like to be wrongly accused and to wait in abject silence” during a trial.

In ruling yesterday on the charges, brought by the Office of the State Prosecutor, Judge W. Albert Menchine said the issue was “not whether Judge Hyatt was unwise or stupid or silly to participate” in the traffic case but whether his actions could be construed as misconduct. He said the evidence presented by Assistant State Prosecutor Bernard Penner fell “far short” of proving that Hyatt had misused his office to dismiss the traffic citation of court clerk Pamela Swan last summer.

Swan, then 21, was cited for driving on a learner’s permit without the supervision of a licensed driver after her car was hit from behind in July by a pickup truck in Germantown, not far from her home. With her in the car at the time was Evelyn Maslar, her roommate and fellow District Court clerk, who was also indicted on charges that she conspired with Hyatt to have the charges dismissed. Her case is pending.

The indictment said that Swan was a “personal and social acquaintance” of the judge, who was appointed to the bench in 1986. The prosecution tried to make a case that Hyatt had smoothed the way for the charge to be dropped. Judges customarily do not to hear cases involving court employees or their families, according to court procedures. Such cases are heard on specially scheduled “family days” by judges brought in from other counties.

The prosecutor said that, instead, Hyatt had dismissed the citation against Swan after then-Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Dobbs deliberately delayed Swan’s court date so the charge could be presented in Hyatt’s courtroom. Dobbs, who is now in private practice, testified that he was asked by Maslar to present the paper on the case to Hyatt in his courtroom and that he waited until Sept. 8, when Hyatt was presiding in traffic court, to do so.

Dobbs testified that in traffic court he told Hyatt that there were no witnesses in the case and no defendent-a practice sometimes used by prosecutors to get charges dismissed. Hyatt issued a not guilty finding without Swan being present, another practice he told the court yesterday was not unusual.

Hyatt testified that he knew Maslar, 39, and Swan casually, as court clerks, and had dropped by their house briefly last summer when they moved to Germantown, near his home. He spoke to them shortly after the accident, he said, when the women asked him how to proceed with the citation against Swan.

Before the trial, Hyatt’s attorneys, Barry Helfand and James J. Cromwell, and the prosecutor agreed in a stipulation that Hyatt’s relationship with the woman was casual and was not “indecorous.” Hyatt said the women sought his advice two days after the accident, and asked him to recommend lawyers they could consult about the civil matter arising from injuries they suffered in the accident.

Hyatt said that he suggested to Swan, then a clerk in the criminal division of District Court, that she first obtain a valid driver’s license, and gave her the names of four lawyers with offices near her home.

Among the four were John MacDonald King, Hyatt’s former law partner, and another lawyer in King’s office, Stephen Weiss. Weiss was later retained by Swan and Maslar after Hyatt drove the women to his office for a consultation. Hyatt said he did not participate in the consultation.

Hyatt said he also told the women, who both resigned from their clerical jobs late in the summer, that they should talk with someone in the state’s attorney’s office.

Judge Menchine, 80, who retired a decade ago from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, said that Dobbs had taken on the responsibility for having the charge against Swan dismissed, and that it could not be construed that Hyatt had arranged it.

He called the citation against Swan “extremely minor in nature.”

Hyatt, a native of Damascus who served on the House Judiciary Committee during his five terms in the legislature, has been on paid medical and administrative leave from his $66,500-a-year job since last September. He was hospitalized for several weeks with peritonitis last fall, but said yesterday that he has since regained his health.

The last six months have been “a very long and difficult time for my family,” Hyatt said, surrounded by relatives and friends. “My life has been hell since September.”