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Official information was hard to come by in two accidents

November 14, 2009|By LINDA DUFFIELD

On Friday morning, Nov. 6, we learned that Washington County Circuit Judge W. Kennedy Boone III had been charged with driving under the influence following a traffic accident on North Prospect Street the night before.

Initially, we had a heck of a time getting official information about the wreck from police, even though unofficially, we had a rough idea what happened from a police source.

We do not print information based on rumor or tips. Our job is to check with the investigating police agency, to verify that an incident did happen and to get pertinent details. In the case of an accident involving a DUI charge, blood-alcohol content is a pertinent detail.

On this day, it took several phone calls to get the bare bones of what happened. We finally had two paragraphs of information about the accident to post on our Web site shortly before 11 a.m. Friday -- about 15 hours after the 8 p.m. Thursday crash.

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Even then, we were able to report only that the judge had been charged with driving under the influence after an accident, and the location and time of the accident.

That's it.

Until about 2 p.m., we had no information on blood-alcohol content (it was 0.18, more than twice Maryland's legal limit of 0.08) and no details of the accident.

At one point, we were told by somebody at the police station that we would have to provide a check for $5 to get a copy of the police report, then wait a week to get the report.

Feeling pretty sure that was not police department policy, we tried again, and eventually got the information we were seeking.

In the meantime, Boone had returned a call from us, agreed to meet with a reporter and talked freely about the accident and the fact that he had been drinking.

The judge seemed to understand that any appearance of a cover-up with regard to the wreck and the subsequent DUI charge would not have been in his best interest. (Honesty is the best policy. If you doubt that, check out how many politicians' attempts to get around the truth have not ended well.)

Not all public figures would be willing to be interviewed under those circumstances. All the more reason why law enforcement agencies should handle the release of information about public figures in exactly the same way they would handle the release of similar information about the rest of us.

I am not suggesting that the police department intentionally dragged its feet in this case or that there was an attempt to keep the information from the public.

I am, however, suggesting that the delay in providing details about the accident and the judge's blood-alcohol content could have been perceived as an attempt to treat this wreck in a different manner than other wrecks because of the prominence of the person charged. (Later, when we did see a police department supplement report of the incident, it seemed to be straightforward, with no holds barred.)

Had the actions of authorities been perceived as an attempt to protect Boone, it would have been a disservice to the driver of the other car who was injured, to the public, which really does have a right to know, and to the judge himself.

Second accident, same story. Almost.

We were forced to jump through hoops to get information about a second accident that occurred Thursday night, this one on Eastern Boulevard near the YMCA.

We were, at various times Thursday night and Friday morning, told that emergency personnel were not sent to that site for an accident; that the accident was minor; and my personal favorite -- the Washington County Sheriff's Department investigated (this from the Hagerstown Police Department) and city police investigated (this from the sheriff's department, in whose jurisdiction the accident occurred).

Given that I had on my computer screen images, provided by a concerned citizen, of more than a dozen emergency responders at the scene, I was a bit skeptical of any responses that suggested the 7:37 p.m. crash was no big deal.

Turns out it was the city that investigated, but it was after 5:30 p.m. Friday, more than 21 hours after that wreck, that we got more than the bare bones. There was a reason -- the investigating officer didn't come on duty until evening.

Again, the problem here is one of perception. The spot where the accident occurred has been the subject of debate over whether it is safe or not.

I am not suggesting impropriety. I would not like to think that either of the law enforcement agencies involved would try to keep accident information from being made public just because the crash site is a political hot potato.

There are those who believe perception carries more weight than reality. Unfair, perhaps, but to a large extent true.

Linda Duffield is city editor of The Herald-Mail.

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