State's Attorney Will Seek Outside Prosecutor For Huff DUI Case
Councilman Todd Huff's request for a jury trial in Circuit Court raises concerns because of family connections and recent zoning decisions, according to a legal scholar.
Huff, who was arrested Feb. 23, has requested a jury trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court—a move that a legal scholar says raises concerns because of Huff's relationship with the family of Circuit Court Administrative Judge John Grason Turnbull II and a recent zoning decision related to property owned by the judge.
Shellenberger Wednesday said his decision to ask a prosecutor from a neighboring jurisdiction to handle the case "is not common but it's not unusual either" when the case is politically charged.
"The County Council decides the budget for the office and this is really to prevent an appearance of impropriety," Shellenberger said. "Typically we go to someone nearby—usually Baltimore City or Harford County."
In 2010, Shellenberger asked the city state's attorney's office to handle the prosecution of a traffic stop involving the daughter and granddaughter of Councilman Ken Oliver.
In 2005, a Harford County prosecutor handled the drunken driving case involving then-Councilman Sam Moxley.
Huff has requested a jury trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court. Typically, most drunken driving cases are first heard in District Court.
"I would almost always prefer that my client have two chances at a not guilty result," said Byron Warnken, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
Defendents in cases at the District Court level can appeal to Circuit Court and receive a new trial.
Huff's attorney, John Grason Turnbull III, did not return a call from a reporter seeking comment.
The younger Turnbull, who is sometimes known as Jack Turnbull, is the son of Baltimore County Circuit Court Administrative Judge John Grason Turnbull II.
In an interview last fall, Huff told Patch that his family lived near the Turnbull family and that he and Jack Turnbull were childhood friends.
Jack Turnbull represented John Huff, one of councilman's children, following a traffic incident last year in Timonium. The younger Turnbull routinely tries cases in Baltimore County Circuit Court and has a spotless reputation, according to Warnken and several other lawyers interviewed by Patch.
Last August, the judge requested a change in zoning on his 97-acre Belfast Road property that would allow additional development of the property. Huff ultimately granted the zoning requested by the judge that is considered a major change that allows increased development in a rural area.
During that same interview last fall, Huff denied accusations by some North County land conservation activists that the judge was his godfather.
Additionally, the council also decides on portions of the budget that help fund circuit court operations, raising the issue of whether or not an outside judge might need to be brought in.
"Does it raise some eyebrows?" Warnken said, referring to the zoning decision and budget issues. "Absolutely."
During Huff's early-morning traffic stop, he appears to make appeals to the police officers not to file charges.
"Don't you know who I am?" he asks the police officer who stopped him, according to charging documents. "You stopped me on my own property."
Huff had pulled into the parking lot of Brooks-Huff Tire & Auto Center, a business owned by his family.
The councilman also asks officers repeatedly if they need to give him field sobriety tests.
"You need to take me home and be done with this," police quote Huff in the charging documents.
He later called Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson three times in a 17-minute period around 3 a.m. Saturday. He left a voice mail message for the chief explaining that he had been pulled over and that he had been drinking.
But Warnken said it's impossible to know what intentions are in play in making a request to move the hearing to the circuit court.
"Human beings, by nature, are name-droppers," Warnken said. "But just because you know me doesn't mean I'll do anything for you if there is an ethical question."
Judge Turnbull was on vacation and not available for comment.
Warnken said he believes Judge Turnbull and other judges in Baltimore County will review the case over the coming weeks to determine if any other judges will preside over it. He said the judges will not only look at real conflicts of interests and impropriety but the appearance of impropriety.
A number of options exist including finding a county Circuit Court judge who believes he or she can preside over the case; bringing in a judge from Harford County, which is part of the same circuit as Baltimore County; bringing in a retired judge such as Judge Dennis Sweeney, who presided over the trials of Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon and Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold; or transferring the case to the Circuit Court in Baltimore City.
The final option could involve a plea agreement that needs only be approved by a judge.
Warnken said he believes the right decisions will be made.
"I think most good people, most people with integrity, will not say, 'Let me find where there [ethical] line is because I'm going to walk right up to it but not go over it,'" Warnken said.