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W.Va. woman fights Md. seat belt law

loses

May 17, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE

A former Berkeley Springs, W.Va., councilwoman had her day in court over a $25 seat-belt fine.

After a 90-minute trial Monday, Washington County Circuit Judge W. Kennedy Boone III found Marie McMahon guilty of violating Maryland's seat belt law.

McMahon, a political activist and a councilwoman in Berkeley Springs from 1989 to 1991, argued that two police officers who pulled her over in Hancock were lying when they said they saw her driving with her shoulder belt dangling unhooked.

"This is not about $25. It's about abuse of power, misrepresentation and lies," said McMahon, 77, who acted as her own attorney at the trial.

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Maryland State Police Trooper Daniel Souders and Hancock Police Sgt. Shawn Tasker testified McMahon wasn't wearing her seat belt while driving her 1985 Cadillac on Pennsylvania Avenue on Oct. 29, 1998.

During the traffic stop, they said they saw her reach over and pull the belt under her shoulder.

McMahon maintained that her seat belt was latched the whole time. She said she always wears her seat belt under her arm rather than over her shoulder due to a medical condition.

Judge Boone said since McMahon didn't use the seat belt properly she technically violated the law.

Boone said after the trial that it's very rare for people to appeal seat belt fines to Circuit Court.

Boone said he gave McMahon, who had earlier been convicted in Washington County District Court, more leeway than a typical defendant because she was representing herself.

At the trial, Washington County Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Hardy objected to many of McMahon's questions and 13 photos McMahon took showing her car and the area of the traffic stop.

McMahon used the pictures to try to discredit the police officers. She tried to show that the officers had different memories of certain details of the traffic stop at the first trial.

To illustrate her testimony, she drew a map of the area in Hancock where she was stopped.

"I was shocked when he pulled up behind me and said he was after me. I said, 'What's this?'" McMahon testified.

Police testified that McMahon told them three times that she was a paralegal. McMahon testified she told them once.

"I didn't get smart with him. I just told him I didn't think he was doing his job right. I was emphasizing my reasons for telling the truth as an officer of the court," she said.

McMahon said she asked the trooper, who was in full uniform and driving a marked car, for identification.

McMahon called three character witnesses, who testified she has never lied to them.

They are Gene Olynyk, a former Berkeley Springs councilman now running for mayor; Dorothy Silvers, a former town employee; and Damon Slone, an investigator with the West Virginia Secretary of State's Office.

McMahon is well known in the Morgan County Courthouse, where she has filed at least a dozen cases.

They range from an injury claim in 1974 stemming from an accident on a one-lane bridge to a 1988 petition calling for the removal of two council members.

McMahon, a paralegal, usually represents herself. She usually loses.

In 1994, McMahon's home at 103 Pratt St. was sold at public auction to satisfy debts. Still fighting that loss, she now lives next door at 101 Pratt St.

At Monday's sentencing, Boone did not add any fines or court costs to the $105 that McMahon had already paid. He recommended she get a doctor's waiver to be able to wear her seat belt under the shoulder.

McMahon could appeal the case to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals on constitutional grounds.

"I'm seriously considering it," she said.

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